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Running On Emptiness 


John Zerzan 


ISBN: 0-922915-75-X 

P.O. Box 13067 



1 09876543 

viii Introduction, by Theresa Kintz 
1 Running on Emptiness: 

the Failure of Symbolic Thought 

17 Time and Its Discontents 

42 Against Technology 

53 That Thing We Do 

67 Enemy of the State 

95 Abstract Expressionism: 

Painting as Vision and Critique 

109 The Age of Nihilism 
1 1 5 Postscript to Future Primitive 
re the Transition 

1 20 Age of Grief 

1 24 In Memoriam 

1 32 Why I Hate Star Trek 

136 PBS, Power, and Postmodernism 
140 Who is Chomsky? 

144 "Hakim Bey," Postmodern "Anarchist" 

147 City of Light 

149 We All Live in Waco 

151 Whose Unabomber? 

156 Domestication News 

158 We Have to Dismantle All This 

161 He Means It. Do You? 

163 How Ruinous Does It Have to Get? 

165 How Postmodernism Greases the Rails 

168 So ... How Did You Become an Anarchist? 

197 No Way Out? 

205 Bibliography 

Running On Emptiness 


by Theresa Kintz 

This collection of essays from civilization's most cogent living critic 
demands consideration. Consideration of the indisputable fact that no 
matter where you're from ten thousand years ago your ancestors were stone- 
age anarchists. Consideration of the significance of how for 99 percent of 
human history people walked gently on the earth, lived free in harmony 
with wild nature and each other accomplishing everything they needed 
to accomplish in their daily lives using a stone, bone, wood tool 
technology. It demands we consider why all artifacts have politics and 
how when we use tools they use us back. It requires we consider how 
human nature was originally one and part of a whole and now we 
lament that we are lost and alienated from one another. 

It is in this context that we are then forced to consider the follow- 
ing questions: What are the origins of this estrangement? Why do we 
ignore the nature of our own bodies and minds? Who decided we needed 
mechanization, electricity, nuclear power, automobiles or computer 
technology? Has one single man-made item been a necessary improvement 
on the earth? Why do we put the survival of all species on the planet in 
peril for our exclusive comfort and gratification? How did we come to 
dedicate our lives to maintaining this mad tangle of supply and demand 
that we call civilization? And finally, what will it take for us to give up 
on the artificiality of our grim modern lives and cleave instead to what is 

For two decades, author John Zerzan's research has focused intently on 
these issues. As one of only a handful of scholars to do so seriously, 
Zerzan is the most important writing from a definitively anarchist point of 
view. His work has contributed to the development of a perspective 
that seeks to merge anarchist socio-political analysis with radical deep- 
green environmental thought, engendering a revolutionary green 
anarchist outlook with a dual focus on social and environmental issues 
and the interplay between the two. Inspired equally by anti-authoritarian 
and radical green viewpoints this dynamic and 


thought -provoking analytical framework has come to be referred to as 
anarcho-primitivism (AP). Some essential elements of the analysis are: 

• Society as we know it now in the industrialized world is 
pathological and the civilizing impulses of certain dominant 
groups and individuals are effectively to blame. 

• Trends in communication towards acts of symbolic repre- 
sentation have obstructed human being's ability to directly 
experience one another socially, and alienated us from the 
rest of the natural world. 

• Humanity basically took a wrong turn with the advent of 
animal domestication and sedentary agriculture, which laid 
the foundation for the exploitation of the earth, facilitated the 
growth of hierarchical social structures and subsequently the 
ideological control of the many by the few. 

• All technology besides the stone-age techniques of hunter- 
gatherers is inherently detrimental to social relations and set 
the stage for the ecological catastrophe now being brought on 
by the technoindustrial system. 

While AP aspires to inform and enlighten with regards to the 
anthropological and archaeological knowledge it imparts, the primary 
purpose is to articulate non-negotiable social discontent and exhort and 
incite revolutionary social change. Illustrating how contemporary society 
is the product of thousands of years of social struggles and complex tech- 
nological changes demonstrates that the current state of affairs we find 
ourselves in is neither inevitable nor desirable in light of what is known 
about cultural processes. Anarcho-primitivist thought and action is 
intentionally provocative. Zerzan is not arguing for "going back," rather 
he is arguing for going forward, towards a future primitive. Green anar- 
chists who will shun identification with all "isms" (perceived as categori- 
cal constructions imposed by the civilization they struggle against) are 
unified by the recognition that it is important not only to understand the 
genesis of the totality in theory, but also to decide for oneself how to 
effectively resist in practice and do so. And there is no place where theory 
has been put into practice more successfully than in the Oregon community 
John Zerzan has been a part of since 1 981 . 

X Running On Emptiness 

It was in 1 999 that Eugene moved onto the frontlines of the green 
anarchist movement in a big way after mainstream media noticed the 
community's vocal support of the noting Black Bloc during the anti- 
World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The "Eugene Anarchists" 
quickly received widespread notoriety with Eugene subsequently dubbed 
"the anarchist capital of America." An appearance on the TV news 
magazine 60 Minutes followed by interviews with major magazines 
meant the intense media attention went on unabated for months. 

Those of us who had been around for a while couldn't remember a 
time when the words anarchy and anarchist were bandied about more in 
popular culture. The fact it was mostly in association with the truly radical 
anarchism of the anarcho-primitivists inevitably caused a backlash from 
within the more conventional anarchist community. The AP perspective, 
despite being the most vibrant and active, remains a contested point of 
view, as traditional anarchists continue to press on with an anti- 
authoritarian agenda designed to appeal to a disaffected proletariat, focusing 
on distribution of wealth and class dimensions of contemporary society 
rather than the fundamental structures that engender it. Within these 
circles the AP perspective is perceived as too extreme, the critique of 
technology too radical and the prescriptions for social change impossible to 
ever actualize. Still, anarcho-primitivists have persisted in confronting the 
old guard in the pages of radical periodicals like Green Anarchist (UK), 
Green Anarchy (US), Black Clad Messenger, Disorderly Conduct, Live Wild 
or Die and the Coalition Against Civilization newsletter Species Traitor. 
Their use of thought -provoking, impudent and absurdly humorous agit-prop 
to communicate specific elements of their profound critique is a self- 
conscious affirmation of their commitment to blatant incitement. Nothing is 
sacred and that is the point. 

Eugene was also the home of the Earth FirstUournal from 1991 to 
2000. It was a time that saw this once vital radical periodical slide into 
a pattern of liberal-oriented, uninspired hand-wringing as Zerzan often 
pointed out in its letters pages. But in large part due to the journal's 
presence a unique intersection of some very special people occurred there 
in the mid-nineties. It was the successful Warner Creek forest defense 
campaign that first drew the scores of young people who would leave 
their homes in cities to take up precarious existence hundreds of feet off 
the ground in tree villages. In 1 998 a new occupation with a 

Intro du c t i o n 

more chaotic and anarchic bent was initiated at Fall Creek outside Eugene. 
The Red Cloud Thunder treesitters spent their days and nights in 
constant vigil, sometimes going for months without ever touching the 
ground, using their bodies to protect the centuries-old stands of ancient 
forest destined for lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest. 

Once these forest defenders had excommunicated themselves from 
civilization and taken up residence in communal social groups in the 
woodlands they came to identify completely with this landscape. It was 
reflected in their daily interactions with one another and with the 
forest. The stories and poetry they wrote in defense of the wild were 
poignant and affective. Their desire to reject modern industrial society 
was utterly authentic, heartfelt and spiritual. They were deliberately re- 
wilding themselves through acts of confrontation and defiance, and 
fundamentally changing their lives. 

The activists in the trees were intimately familiar with the various 
elements of environmentalist discourse and many had gone through a 
progression from "shallow ecology" — a commitment to recycling, sup- 
porting local conservation projects, becoming vegetarians, to a "deep 
ecology" — rejecting reformist approaches, losing faith in legal means of 
protection, and finally questioning the foundations of industrial society 
in general. Some, disenfranchised and disenchanted bourgeoisie, had 
majored in environmental studies where they learned the essentials of 
biology, chemistry, physics, etc., but found the scientistic ecological 
analysis profoundly lacking from political and spiritual perspectives. Some 
were working-class urban runaways searching for a way out of the cage 
of civilization, looking for a community of resistance where they could 
share skills and fight the good fight for the wild. What they all had in 
common by the time they went to live in trees was a feeling of profound 
affinity with wild nature and, a desire to immerse themselves in natural 
systems, to come to a degree of understanding that would never be 
achieved in crowded industrial urban environments or by reading books 
and attending lectures. What they desired was a sense of place, a feeling 
of connection to all living things. For the Fall Creek forest defenders taking 
direct action in defense of the wild was not about abstract political 
arguments or scientific rationale, it was about truly doing away with the 
nature/culture dualism, rejecting civilization and defining one's self as a 
member of the community of all beings. 

xii Running On Emptiness 

At the same time activists who remained in urban areas were thor- 
oughly rejecting the lifestyle it dictates. Their resistance took the form 
of declaring liberated zones within the confines of the cities. In addition 
to Zerzan's Whiteaker neighborhood in Eugene that provided essential 
ground support for the trees, there was also the Minnehaha Free State in 
Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnehaha was particularly significant with 
respect to the unique alliance local Earth First! activists established with 
indigenous Native Americans there. The joint occupation began at a 
prehistoric archaeological site due to be destroyed by a highway re-route 
when a group of Earth Firsders and members of the Mendota tribe began 
squatting in evacuated houses just before demolition. The Minnehaha 
Free State was an intentional community where an atmosphere of 
mutual aid and fellowship flourished. Supported by many in the 
surrounding local community, the coalition of activists confronted the 
state and held up the road project for several months until the governor 
sent in the National Guard to remove the protesters in what would be 
the largest police action in Minnesota history. 

This is just a brief description of the social context in which the 
essays in Running on Em p tiness were written in the years between 1995 
and 2001. Most premiered in the pages of those radical periodicals 
that Zerzan regularly contributes to. This current compilation contin- 
ues the work began in previous volumes, Future Primitive and Elements 
of Refusal, by looking into possible ways out of this dismal ascent into 
violence, oppression, hatred, environmental exploitation and human 
misery that is civilization. As I write this introduction in the autumn of 
2001 the world is apparently gearing up for Running on 

emptiness, indeed. Interestingly, heads of states are referring to what is 
going on as a "clash of civilizations" — how true, for a change. The regimes 
currently challenging the West's supremacy are authoritarian entities no less 
civilized than capitalist America. The only differences between the 
combatants are down to access to resources, position in global power 
structures and technological sophistication. It's been going on like 
this for thousands of years. Even a cursory overview of history shows that 
as long as civilizations have existed they've made war on each 
other — always have, always will. As usual there will be no real 
revolutionary potential as both sides promote ideologies based on control, 
repression and fear. 


Current analysis of the situation barely scratch the surface, leaving the 
underlying causes for this persistent pattern of confrontation unexamined. 
America and its allies with their ahistorical blinders on arrogantly view 
Western civilization as invincible. Rest assured, so did the Egyptian 
Pharaohs, the Roman Emperors and the Ottoman Caliphs ... but where 
are they now? Did the Mayan peasants or leaders envision their city-states 
someday covered by jungle (perhaps the peasants actually did, is that why it 
happened)? What do we really expect someplace like Manhattan or 
London will look like in 500, 5,000, 50,000 years? The truth is that as 
long as skyscrapers, military industrial complexes, investment bankers and 
jet airplanes exist the possibility exists they'll collide. It was inevitable that 
one day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as physical 
manifestations of imperialist America's economic power and military might 
would someday lie in ruins. It has just happened sooner rather than later. In 
light of recent events it seems more important than ever to reflect on 
what is at the foundation of this clash of civilizations and John Zerzan's 
work provides an important starting point. 

Our general understanding of ways of life in the past has been radi- 
cally altered from the once dominant Hobbesian view of pre-civilized life 
as nasty, brutish and short, when civilization was thought to be a neces- 
sary condition for making us better humans. Rethinking the characteris- 
tics of the categories of primitive vs. modern is one of the main themes 
of the opening essays which address, in various terms, the failures of 
symbolic thought. As Zerzan argues, when we removed ourselves from the 
direct experience of the sensual world through reification, time and 
language we became less stimulated by our senses. As we immerse our- 
selves in the world of objectification and abstraction, we see the triumph 
of the symbols for reality over the reality of experience itself. 

The false consciousness of symbolic representation and its conse- 
quences are evidenced in the domination of nature, division of labor, co- 
ordination of action, standardization of technique, institution of social 
and ritual rules and finally, industrial behavior. It is this constellation 
of cultural practices that precipitated, as Zerzan writes, "the fall from 
simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced" resulting in the 
alienated society in which we now live. By seeking to understand the 
process by which this came about, Zerzan continues his anarchoprimitivist 
project of demystifying this alienation, speaking in terms of 

xiv RunningOnE mp t i n e s s 

watershed events, moments where decisions were made, cultures chose 
paths, resistance to the civilizing impulses was overcome and the next 
stage of the domestication of humans and of nature was attained. It is 
an accumulation that buries each stage under the rubble of ideology and 
legitimization so that one sees only the surface with eyes conditioned by 
alienated existence. 

It is undeniable that modern socio-political organization, material 
culture and resource distribution has become so complicated that scholars 
in any field of study would be hard pressed to make sense of the root 
causes or potential effects. But should this preclude us from trying? In 
the part of North America where Zerzan lives small groups of 
egalitarian, stone-age hunter-gatherers were getting along just fine until 
confronted by the first Europeans less than 200 years ago. Now wage 
slaves there pay taxes, drive to work in cars and return to electrified 
homes at night to check email on computers and watch satellite TV 
reports on cloning. How did this happen? 

Working as an archaeologist for the last decade, I've observed first- 
hand how 14,000 years of continuous Native American occupation left 
the scant legacy of ephemeral hearth features, delicate spear points and 
broken pieces of pottery prehistoric archaeologists study. But what lies 
on the land now, after only a few hundred years since colonization and 
industrialization? ... superfund sites, nuclear warheads, factory farms, 
denuded forests, poisoned rivers and dying industrial towns with 
already crumbling inner-cities. Archaeologists recognize how all this 
alteration of matter our society engages in now is unprecedented in 
terms of the scope of the distribution and essential durability of the 
composite materials modern technology is capable of creating. One 
thing archaeology demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt is that 
there is no such thing as "away" when one speaks about throwing things 
like arrowheads, broken dishes, glass, spent nuclear fuel, asphalt, 
refrigerators, autos, computers, diapers away. What is going to be the 
fate of all these concrete, plastic, metal, toxic, complicated, real, mate- 
rial, empirical objects our modern material culture produces? It 
appears that most people operate under the mistaken impression that 
these things our culture is so busy making are going to be functioning 
"forever," or at least a modified version of them will be. Archaeologists 
know that's not likely to be true and we confront the enormity of this 



realization every day. The simple truth is that every generation of humans 
to come is going to have to deal with the complex social and 
environmental impacts of our modern civilization. 

Zerzan should really be commended for his efforts toward taking the 
data and theory being produced by archaeologists and trying to make it 
relevant to us in the real world. It is possible to construct some very 
cogent arguments against civilization using worldwide archaeological 
research as evidence, as Zerzan demonstrates. Archaeologists themselves 
could become very effective social critics of rampant technological 
change, hierarchical class systems and unsustainable industrial devel- 
opment if they chose to interpret the evidence they study in such a 
light. By focusing on certain issues addressed in archaeological theory 
like the effects of over-exploitation of resources surrounding human 
habitations, the outcomes of increasing social stratification, the conse- 
quences of proliferating complexity in material culture and resource dis- 
tribution, the potential for conflicts as a result of scarcity, etc., one can 
come to some very different conclusions about the wisdom of the pro- 
technology, pro-industrial agenda the dominant forces in Western culture 
have deemed progressive and in the global society's best interest. 

Unfortunately my academic colleagues are reluctant to engage in the 
kind of political debate Zerzan is trying to start, yet I know that none 
in the field could deny that all of the so-called achievements of man are 
only monuments to overwhelming pride and hubris, as he so plainly 
argues. Everybody, not just the archaeologists, knows people managed to 
live perfectly fine for thousands of years without electricity or 
automobiles — what better evidence than that can you have that it is 
possible? It is our involvement in society that creates the false percep- 
tion of such needs. Here the Green Anarchist tendencies expressed in 
the AP analysis emerge as the remnants of a bygone consciousness with 
the potential to re-awaken the immediacy of life and the affinity with 
wild nature that humanity experienced in pre-civilization. 

Zerzan has written in great detail about how technology now props 
up the totalizing system of capital that has emptied the meaning from 
everyday life. While Zerzan has much in common with other contemporary 
critics of technology such as Ellul, Marcuse and Adorno, he is 
unwilling to let this domination of the machine over our daily lives go 
unchallenged. The fact that he had enough guts to be the lone 

xvi Running On Emptiness 

voice of dissent in front of an audience of technology cheerleaders at 
Stanford University is telling of how he views his work. Insisting tech- 
nology is neutral, like many anarchists do, allows one to avoid demon- 
strating it is positive or negative. The armed-to-the-teeth U.S. Right 
says, "guns don't kill people, people kill people" but obviously if guns 
didn't exist no one would be killed by guns. Guns are not neutral; they 
are weapons of death when they are used at all. Neither is technology 
neutral; one can cite a multitude of ways our commitment to keeping 
the technoindustrial system in running order exerts insidious control 
over our daily lives. Technology assists the state in its repression of 
dissent, decreases human freedom and happiness, destroys the natural world 
and turns all of us into biomechanical appendages of the megamachine. 

The dual commodification of labor and of time, as Zerzan points 
Out, is relentless and he calls for a negative reconsideration of time from its 
initial role as a socially learned symbolic abstraction through to the 
notion of linear time and progress to the subordination of the working 
class where time is money. Time's reckoning alienates us from the 
present and from experiencing the rich wholeness of unmediated existence, 
separating humans from the ebb and flow of being by mathematizing our 
very being with its all consuming measuring presence and insistence on 
perfect and universal ordering. 

In the middle section of essays Zerzan addresses postmodernism. 
His critique of radical relativist tendencies is much needed and com- 
pelling. He begins with an explanation of why he hates Star Trek and 
finishes with a swat at post-modern intellectual ostriches "confident to 
only contemplate what appears within their limited field of vision, 
ignoring the past and present in favor of the always tentative and 
mostly uncritical examination of the parochial and the particular and 
rejoicing in its own depthlessness." The essay on how PBS "program- 
ming" (the very word!) leads us all toward a more manageable society 
does much to undermine its public-interest pretense by highlighting 
how well the content suits those who maintain the system of class and 
capital. Picking up on the popular media's christening of the youth of 
the '90s as the generation "that couldn't care less" JZ comments on 
how our age of nihilism, post-modernism's essential accomplice, is 
evidence of the widespread social pathology of civilization. 


While post-modernism has indeed become very adept at deconstruction 
Zerzan is correct to argue it fails miserably as a philosophical discourse 
when, overwhelmed by the complexity of history and society, it 
proclaims "Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality 
anyway." His scathing critique of nihilist post-modernism would send 
shudders down the spines of leftist academics if they had any. And speaking 
of leftist academics, Zerzan asks in one essay, "Who is Noam Chomsky?" 
Well, not an anarchist anyway ... a left-leaning professor with little time 
for questioning authority, technology or anything as radical as that, 
perhaps? And "Who is Hakim Bey?" A hip PM cynic evidently happy with 
the totality of oppression and its physical manifestation technology, 
perhaps? Zerzan slices through Bey's thick anti-primitivist rhetoric to 
reveal a thinly veiled racket in Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone spiel. 
Several of the essays address what lengths the ruling order will go to 
deny reality, e.g. a modern psychiatry that ignores the very real 
strains and stresses of life in the technoindustrial prison. In preferring to 
treat the individual as in need of re -programming to better meet the 
requirements of the system that oppresses rather than encouraging 
efforts toward liberation the profession attempts to narcotize the 
populace into accepting their lot in life. It is a tactic that reduces human 
suffering to an aberration with biological or genetic roots and is a horrific 
example of the pathology of civilization. 

This collection also contains a series of short, sharp essays offering 
fresh perspectives on current events, e.g. the meaning of Waco and 
Jonestown and the reactionary response of leftists to the gauntlet thrown 
down in front of civilization by FC. The profound anti-civilization 
argument put forth in the anarchist essay Industrial Society and Its 
Future (the so-called Unabomber Manifesto) brought to mind atti- 
tudes held by many involved early on in the Earth First! movement 
who, like FC, realized it was industrial society itself that posed the 
most significant threat to Mother Earth and human freedom. It was 
disappointing to see how quickly vocal minorities within the radical 
green and the anarchist milieus sought to distance themselves from 
FC's campaign against the exploiters. Not Zerzan, though, and his 
support of Kaczynski has never wavered. 

Those who know him personally know John always talks with people 
about his ideas, not to them. In "Enemy of the State," inter- 

XV 1 1 1 

Running. On Emptiness 

viewer Derrick Jensen notes that Zerzan both defies the stereotype of 
the bomb-throwing anarchist and shrinks from the role of guru by refusing 
to play the wise old anarchist handing down pearls of wisdom. Their in- 
depth discussion offers clarification of some of the more general and 
persistent misunderstandings surrounding the anti-authoritarian, anti- 
civilization critique. Along with the autobiographical sketch, "So How 
Did You Become an Anarchist?" (a previously unpublished, welcome 
addition to this collection), these two pieces shed considerable light on 
the author's past and present. In writing about himself a perhaps overly 
modest Zerzan leaves much out, but does present a brief overview of his 
Catholic family roots, forays into the educational system, intellectual 
catalysts, social experiences with labor unions, the Situationists and various 
radical publications, his gradual embrace of anarchism, his relationship 
with Kaczynski and life in the anarchist community of Eugene. 

Zerzan's use of an academic (yet accessible) writing style and copious 
citations from primary research material means he is sometimes accused 
of asking a lot of the -reader, as if presenting something as complex as an 
analysis of all of human history would ever be easy. No, he is not writing 
the "The History of Civilization for Dummies" — because he does not 
view his audience in those terms. But you don't have to have a Ph.D. 
in archaeology to understand the points Zerzan is making. Prehistory is 
all around us, it is there for everyone to observe and contemplate. Don't 
believe me? Please get up now and go gaze out of the nearest window for 
a moment. Imagine the same landscape there before you 10,000 years 
ago and just think about what the lives of the people living there would 
have been like. Turn off the radio and television, unplug the computer 
and the telephone, look past the concrete, tune out the noise of the 
traffic and visualize what it must have been like living in an ecologically 
sustainable, socially harmonious world. The question of how we got from 
the stone age to the space age should be of interest to all human 
inhabitants of planet earth. Zerzan argues that in understanding the 
primitive past we take the first step toward rejecting the pathological 
present and actualizing a future primitive. It is a radical idea that certainly 
deserves our consideration. 


To what degree can it be said that we are really living? As the substance of 
culture seems to shrivel and offer less balm to troubled lives, we are led 
to look more deeply at our barren times. And to the place of culture 
itself in all this. 

An anguished Ted Sloan asks (1996), "What is the problem with 
modernity? Why do modern societies have such a hard time producing 
adults capable of intimacy, work, enjoyment, and ethical living? Why is 
it that signs of damaged life are so prevalent?" According to David Morris 
(1994), "Chronic pain and depression, often linked and occasionally 
even regarded as a single disorder, constitute an immense crisis at the 
center of postmodern life." We have cyberspace and virtual reality, instant 
computerized communication in the global village; and yet have we ever 
felt so impoverished and isolated? 

Just as Freud predicted that the fullness of civilization would mean 
universal neurotic unhappiness, anti-civilization currents are growing in 
response to the psychic immiseration that envelops us. Thus symbolic 
life, essence of civilization, now comes under fire. 

It may still be said that this most familiar, if artificial, element is the least 
understood, but felt necessity drives critique, and many of us feel driven to 
get to the bottom of a steadily worsening mode of existence. Out of a 

2 Running on Emptiness 

sense of being trapped and limited by symbols comes the thesis that the 
extent to which thought and emotion are tied to symbolism is the measure 
by which absence fills the inner world and destroys the outer world. 

We seem to have experienced a fall into representation, whose depths 
and consequences are only now being fully plumbed. In a fundamental sort 
of falsification, symbols at first mediated reality and then replaced it. At 
present we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our 
bodily selves or directly with each other. 

The more involved this internal representational system is, the 
more distanced we are from the reality around us. Other connections, 
other cognitive perspectives are inhibited, to say the least, as symbolic 
communication and its myriad representational devices have accom- 
plished an alienation from and betrayal of reality. 

This coming between and concomitant distortion and distancing 
is ideological in a primary and original sense; every subsequent ideology 
is an echo of this one. Debord depicted contemporary society as exerting a 
ban on living in favor of its representation: images now in the saddle, 
riding life. But this is anything but a new problem. There is an 
imperialism or expansionism of culture from the beginning. And how 
much does it conquer? Philosophy today says that it is language that 
thinks and talks. But how much has this always been the case? 

Symbolizing is linear, successive, substitutive; it cannot be open to 
its whole object simultaneously. Its instrumental reason is just that: 
manipulative and seeking dominance. Its approach is "let a stand for V 
instead of "let a be a." Language has its basis in the effort to conceptualize 
and equalize the unequal, thus bypassing the essence and diversity of a 
varied, variable richness. 

Symbolism is an extensive and profound empire, which reflects 
and makes coherent a world view, and is itself a world view based upon 
withdrawal from immediate and intelligible human meaning. 

James Shreeve, at the end of his Neanderthal Enigma (1995), pro- 
vides a beautiful illustration of an alternative to symbolic being. Medi- 
tating upon what an earlier, non-symbolic consciousness might have 
been like, he calls forth important distinctions and possibilities:" 

"... where the modern's gods might inhabit the land, the buffalo, or 
the blade of grass, the Neandertal's spirit was the animal or the 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 

grass blade, the thing and its soul perceived as a single vital force, with 
no need to distinguish them with separate names. Similarly, the 
absence of artistic expression does not preclude the apprehension of 
what is artful about the world. Neandertals did not paint their caves 
with the images of animals. But perhaps they had no need to distill 
life into representations, because its essences were already revealed to 
their senses. The sight of a running herd was enough to inspire a 
surging sense of beauty. They had no drums or bone flutes, but they 
could listen to the booming rhythms of the wind, the earth, and 
each other's heartbeats, and be transported." 

Rather than celebrate the cognitive communion with the world that 
Shreeve suggests we once enjoyed, much less embark on the project of 
seeking to recover it, the use of symbols is of course widely considered 
the hallmark of human cognition. Goethe said, "Everything is a 
symbol," as industrial capitalism, milestone of mediation and alienation, 
took off At about the same time Kant decided that the key to philoso- 
phy lies in the answer to the question, "What is the ground of the rela- 
tion of that in us which we call 'representation' to the object?" Unfortu- 
nately, he divined for modern thought an ahistorical and fundamentally 
inadequate answer, namely that we are simply not constituted so as to be 
able to understand reality directly. Two centuries later (1981), 
Emmanuel Levinas came much closer to the mark with "Philosophy, in its 
very diachrony, is the consciousness of the breakup of consciousness." 

Eli Sagan (1985) spoke for countless others in declaring that the 
need to symbolize and live in a symbolic world is, like aggression, a human 
need so basic that "it can be denied only at the cost of severe psychic 
disorder." The need for symbols — and violence — did not always obtain, 
however. Rather, they have their origins in the thwarting and 
fragmenting of an earlier wholeness, in the process of domestication 
from which civilization issued. Apparently driven forward by a gradually 
quickening growth in the division of labor that began to take hold in the 
Upper Paleolithic, culture emerged as time, language, art, number, and then 

The word culture derives from the Latin cultura, referring to culti- 
vation of the soil; that is, to the domestication of plants and animals — 
and of ourselves in the bargain. A restless spirit of innovation and 

4 Running On 

anxiety has largely been with us ever since, as continually changing 
symbolic modes seek to fix what cannot be redressed without rejecting 
the symbolic and its estranged world. 

Following Durkheim, Leslie White (1949) wrote, "Human behavior is 
symbolic behavior; symbolic behavior is human behavior. The symbol is 
the universe of humanity." It is past time to see such pronouncements as 
ideology, serving to shore up the elemental falsification underneath a 
virtually all-encompassing false consciousness. But if a fully developed 
symbolic world is not, in Northrop Frye's bald claim (1981), in sum 
"the charter of our freedom," anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1965) comes 
closer to the truth in saying that we are generally dependent on "the 
guidance provided by systems of significant symbols." Closer yet is Cohen 
(1974), who observed that "symbols are essential for the development and 
maintenance of social order." The ensemble of symbols represents the 
social order and the individual's place in it, a formulation that always leaves 
the genesis of this arrangement unquestioned. How did our behavior 
come to be aligned by symbolization? 

Culture arose and flourished via domination of nature, its growth a 
measure of that progressive mastery that unfolded with ever greater 
division of labor. Malinowski (1962) understood symbolism as the 
soul of civilization, chiefly in the form of language as a means of coor- 
dinating action or of standardizing technique, and providing rules for 
social, ritual, and industrial behavior. 

It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced, 
from the sensuous moment of knowing, which leaves a gap that the 
symbolic can never bridge. This is what is always being covered over 
by layers of cultural consolations, civilized detouring that never recovers lost 
wholeness. In a very deep sense, only what is repressed is symbolized, 
because only what is repressed needs to be symbolized. The magnitude 
of symbolization testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but 
possibly still recoverable. 

Imperceptibly for a long while, most likely, division of labor very 
slowly advanced and eventually began to erode the autonomy of the 
individual and a face-to-face mode of social existence. The virus des- 
tined to become full-blown as civilization began in this way: a tentative 
thesis supported by all that victimizes us now. From initial alienation to 
advanced civilization, the course is marked by more and 

The Failure of Symbolic Thought 

more reification, dependence, bureaucratization, spiritual desolation, 
and barren technicization. 

Little wonder that the question of the origin of symbolic thought, 
the very air of civilization, arises with some force. Why culture should 
exist in the first place appears, increasingly, a more apt way to put it. 
Especially given the enormous antiquity of human intelligence now 
established, chiefly from Thomas Wynn's persuasive demonstration (1989) 
of what it took to fashion the stone tools of about a million years ago. 
There was a very evident gap between established human capability and 
the initiation of symbolic culture, with many thousands of generations 
intervening between the two. 

Culture is a fairly recent affair. The oldest cave art, for example, is in 
the neighborhood of 30,000 years old, and agriculture only got underway 
about 10,000 years ago. The missing element during the vast interval 
between the time when I.Q. was available to enable symbolizing, and its 
realization, was a shift in our relationship to nature. It seems plausible to 
see in this interval, on some level that we will perhaps never fathom, a 
refusal to strive for mastery of nature. It may be that only when this 
striving for mastery was introduced, probably non-consciously, via a very 
gradual division of labor, did the symbolizing of experiences begin to take 

But, it is so often argued, the violence of primitives — human sacri- 
fice, cannibalism, head-hunting, slavery, etc. — can only be tamed by 
symbolic culture/civilization. The simple answer to this stereotype of the 
primitive is that organized violence was not ended by culture, but in fact 
commenced with it. William J. Perry (1927) studied various New World 
peoples and noted a striking contrast between an agricultural group 
and a non-domesticated group. He found the latter "greatly 
inferior in culture, but lacking [the formers] hideous customs." 
While virtually every society that adopted a domesticated relationship to 
nature, all over the globe, became subject to violent practices, the non- 
agricultural knew no organized violence. Anthropologists have long 
focused on the Northwest Coast Indians as a rare exception to this rule of 
thumb. Although essentially a fishing people, at a certain point they took 
slaves and established a very hierarchical society. Even here, however, 
domestication was present, in the form of tame dogs and tobacco as a minor 

D Running on Emptiness 

We succumb to objectification and let a web of culture control us 
and tell us how to live, as if this were a natural development. It is any- 
thing but that, and we should be clear abou t what culture/civilization has 
in fact given us, and what it has taken away. 

The philosopher Richard Rorty (1979) described culture as the 
assemblage of claims to knowledge. In the realm of symbolic being the 
senses are depreciated, because of their systematic separation and atrophy 
under civilization. The sensual is not considered a legitimate source of claims 
to truth. 

We humans once allowed a full and appreciative reception to the 
total sensory input, what is called in German umwelt, or the world 
around us. Heinz Werner (1940, 1963) argued that originally a single 
sense obtained, before divisions in society ruptured sensory unity. Sur- 
viving non-agricultural peoples often exhibit, in the interplay and 
mterpenetration of the senses, a very much greater sensory awareness 
and involvement than do domesticated individuals (E. Carpenter 
1980). Striking examples abound, such as the Bushmen, who can see 
four moons of Jupiter with the unaided eye and can hear a single- 
engine light plane seventy miles away (Farb 1978). 

Symbolic culture inhibits human communication by blocking and 
otherwise suppressing channels of sensory awareness. An increasingly 
technological existence compels us to tune out most of what we could 
experience. The William Blake declaration comes to mind: 

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to 
man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, 'till he sees all 
things through narrow chinks of his cavern. 

Laurens van der Post (1958) described telepathic communication among 
the Kung in Africa, prompting Richard Coan (1987) to characterize such 
modes as "representing an alternative, rather than a prelude to the kind of 
civilization in which we live." 

In 1623 William Drummond wrote, "What sweet contentments 
doth the soul enjoy by the senses. They are the gates and windows of 
its knowledge, the organs of its delight." In fact, the "I," if not the 
"soul," doesn't exist in the absence of bodily sensations; there are no non- 
sensory conscious states. 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 

But it is all too evident how our senses have been domesticated in a 
symbolic cultural atmosphere: tamed, separated, arranged in a revealing 
hierarchy. Vision, under the sign of modern linear perspective, reigns 
because it is the least proximal, most distancing of the senses. It has 
been the means by which the individual has been transformed into a 
spectator, the world into a spectacle, and the body an object or speci- 
men. The primacy of the visual is no accident, for an undue elevation of 
sight not only situates the viewer outside what he or she sees, but enables 
the principle of control or domination at base. Sound or hearing as the 
acme of the senses would be much less adequate to domestication because 
it surrounds and penetrates the speaker as well as the listener. 

Other sensual faculties are discounted far more. Smell, which loses 
its importance only when suppressed by culture, was once a vital means of 
connection with the world. The literature on cognition almost 
completely ignores the sense of smell, just as its role is now so 
circumscribed among humans. It is, after all, of little use for purposes of 
domination; considering how smell can so directly trigger even very distant 
memories, perhaps it is even a kind of anti-domination faculty. Lewis 
Thomas (1983) remarked that "The act of smelling something, anything, is 
remarkably like the act of thinking itself." And if it isn't it very likely 
used to be and should be again. 

Tactile experiences or practices are another sensual area we have been 
expected to relinquish in favor of compensatory symbolic substitutes. 
The sense of touch has indeed been diminished in a synthetic, work- 
occupied, long-distance existence. There is little time for or emphasis on 
tactile stimulation or communication, even though such depnval causes 
clearly negative outcomes. Nuances of sensitivity and tenderness become 
lost, and it is well known that infants and children who are seldom 
touched, carried and caressed are slow to develop and are often 
emotionally stunted. 

Touching by definition involves feeling; to be "touched" is to feel 
emotionally moved, a reminder of the earlier potency of the tactile 
sense, as in the expression "keep in touch." The lessening of this cate- 
gory of sensuousness, among the rest, has had momentous consequences. Its 
renewal, in a re-sensitized, reunited world, will bring a likewise momentous 
improvement in living. As Tommy cried out, in 

Running on Emptiness 

The Who's rock opera of the same name, "See me, feel me, touch me, 
heal me. . . ." 

As with animals and plants, the land, the rivers, and human emo- 
tions, the senses come to be isolated and subdued. Aristotle's notion of a 
"proper" plan of the universe dictated that "each sense has its proper 
sphere." Freud, Marcuse and others saw that civilization demands the 
sublimation or repression of the pleasures of the proximity senses so that 
the individual can be thus converted to an instrument of labor. Social 
control, via the network of the symbolic, very deliberately disempowers 
the body. An alienated counter-world, driven on to greater estrangement 
by ever-greater division of labor, humbles one's own somatic sensations 
and fundamentally distracts from the basic rhythms of one's life. 
The definitive mmd-body split, ascribed to Descartes' 17th 
century formulations, is the very hallmark of modern society. What 
has been referred to as the great "Cartesian anxiety" over the specter of 
intellectual and moral chaos, was resolved in favor of suppression of the 
sensual and passionate dimension of human existence. Again we see 
the domesticating urge underlying culture, the fear of not being in 
control, now indicting the senses with a vengeance. Henceforth science 
and technology have a theoretic license to proceed without limits, sensual 
knowledge having been effectively eradicated in terms of claims to truth 
or understanding. 

Seeing what this bargain has wrought, a deep-seated reaction is 
dawning against the vast symbolic enterprise that weighs us down and 
invades every part of us. "If we do not 'come to our senses' soon," as 
David Howes (1991) judged, "we will have permanently forfeited the 
chance of constructing any meaningful alternatives to the pseudo-exis- 
tence which passes for life in our current 'Civilization of the Image.'" The 
task of critique may be, most centrally, to help us see what it will take to 
reach a place in which we are truly present to each other and to the 

The first separation seems to have been the sense of time which 
brings a loss of being present to ourselves. The growth of this sense is 
all but indistinguishable from that of alienation itself. If, as Levi-Strauss 
put it, "the characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness," 
living in the here and now becomes lost through the mediation of 
cultural interventions. Presentness is deferred by the 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 

symbolic, and this refusal of the contingent instant is the birth of 
time. We fall under the spell of what Eliade called the "terror of 
history" as representations effectively oppose the pull of immediate 
perceptual experience. 

Mircea Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return (1954) stresses the fear 
that all primitive societies have had of history, the passing of time. On 
the other hand, voices of civilization have tried to celebrate our immer- 
sion in this most basic cultural construct. Leroi-Gourhan (1964), for 
instance, saw in time orientation "perhaps the human act par excel- 
lence." Our perceptions have become so time-governed and time satu- 
rated that it is hard to imagine time's general absence: for the same 
reasons it is so difficult to see, at this point, a non-alienated, non-sym- 
bolic, undivided social existence. 

History, according to Peterson and Goodall (1993), is marked by an 
amnesia about where we came from. Their stimulating Visions of 
Caliban also pointed out that our great forgetting may well have begun 
with language, the originating device of the symbolic world. Compara- 
tive linguist Mary LeCron Foster (1978, 1980) believes that language 
is perhaps less than 50,000 years old and arose with the first impulses 
toward art, ritual and social differentiation. Verbal symbolizing is the 
principal means of establishing, defining, and maintaining the cultural 
world and of structuring our very thinking. 

As Hegel said somewhere, to question language is to question being. 
It is very important, however, to resist such overstatements and see the 
distinction, for one thing, between the cultural importance of language 
and its inherent limitations. To hold that we and the world are but 
linguistic creations is just another way of saying how pervasive and 
controlling is symbolic culture. But Hegel's claim goes much too far, 
and George Herbert Mead's assertion (1934) that to have a mind one 
must have a language is similarly hyperbolic and false. 

Language transforms meaning and communication but is not syn- 
onymous with them. Thought, as Vendler (1967) understood, is essen- 
tially independent of language. Studies of patients and others lacking all 
aspects of speech and language demonstrate that the intellect remains 
powerful even in the absence of those elements (Lecours and joanette 
1980; Donald 1991). The claim that language greatly facilitates 
thought is likewise questionable, inasmuch as formal experiments with 


Running on Emptiness 

children and adults have not demonstrated it (G. Cohen 1977). Lan- 
guage is clearly not a necessary condition for thinking (see Kertesz 1 988, 
Jansons 1988). 

Verbal communication is part of the movement away from a face- 
to-face social reality, making feasible physical separateness. The word 
always stands between people who wish to connect with each other, 
facilitating the diminution of what need not be spoken to be said. That 
we have declined from a non-lmguistic state begins to appear a sane 
point of view. This intuition may lie behind George W Morgan's 1968 
judgment that "Nothing, indeed, is more subject to depreciation and 
suspicion in our disenchanted world than the word. " 

Communication outside civilization involved all the senses, a con- 
dition linked to the key gatherer-hunter traits of openness and sharing. 
Literacy ushered us into the society of divided and reduced senses, and 
we take this sensory deprivation for granted as if it were a natural state, 
just as we take literacy for granted. 

Culture and technology exist because of language. Many have seen 
speech, in turn, as a means of coordinating labor, that is, as an essential 
part of the technique of production. Language is critical for the formation of 
the rules of work and exchange accompanying division of labor, with the 
specializations and standardizations of nascent economy paralleling those 
of language. Now guided by symbolization, a new kind of thinking takes 
over, which realizes itself in culture and technology. The interdependence 
of language and technology is at least as obvious as that of language and 
culture, and results in an accelerating mastery over the natural world 
intrinsically similar to the control introduced over the once autonomous and 
sensuous individual. 

Noam Chomsky, chief language theorist, commits a grave and 
reactionary error by portraying language as a "natural" aspect of "essen- 
tial human nature," innate and independent of culture (1966, 1992). 
His Cartesian perspective sees the mind as an abstract machine which 
is simply destined to turn out strings of symbols and manipulate them. 
Concepts like origins or alienation have no place in this barren techno- 
schema. Lieberman (1975) provides a concise and fundamental correc- 
tion: "Human language could have evolved only in relation to the total 
human condition. " 

The original sense of the word define is, from Latin, to limit or 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 


bring to an end. Language seems often to close an experience, 
not to help ourselves be open to experience. When we dream, 
what happens is not expressed in words, just as those in love 
communicate most deeply without verbal symbolizing. What 
has been advanced by language that has really advanced the 
human spirit? In 1976, von Glasersfeld wondered "whether, at 
some future time, it will still seem so obvious that language has 
enhanced the survival of life on this planet." Numerical symbolism 
is also of fundamental importance to the development of a 
cultural world. In many primitive societies it was and is 
considered unlucky to count living creatures, an anti-reification 
attitude related to the common primitive notion that to name 
another is to gain power over that person. Counting, like naming, 
is part of the domestication process. Division of labor lends 
itself to the quantifiable, as opposed to what is whole in itself, 
unique, not fragmented. Number is also necessary for the 
abstraction inherent in the exchange of commodities and is 
prerequisite to the take-off of science and technology. The urge 
to measure involves a deformed kind of knowledge that seeks 
control of its object, not understanding. 

The sentiment that "the only way we truly apprehend things is 
through art" is a commonplace opinion, one which underlines our 
dependence on symbols and representation. "The fact that 
originally all art was 'sacred'" (Eliade, 1985), that is, belonging 
to a separate sphere, testifies to its original status or function. 
Art is among the earliest forms of ideological and ritual 
expressiveness, developed along with religious observances 
designed to hold together a communal life that was beginning to 
fragment. It was a key means of facilitating social integration and 
economic differentiation (Dickson, 1990), probably by 
encoding information to register membership, status, and 
position (Lumsden and Wilson 1983). Prior to this time, 
somewhere during the Upper Paleolithic, devices for social 
cohesion were unnecessary; division of labor, separate roles, and 
territoriality seem to have been largely non-existent. As 
tensions and anxieties started to emerge in social life, art and 
the rest of culture arose with them in answer to their disturbing 


Running on Emptiness 

tion that motivated the artistic search for a "fuller and deeper expression" 
as "compensation for new deficiencies of life." Cultural solutions, however, 
do not address the deeper dislocations that cultural "solutions" are 
themselves part of. Conversely, as commentators as diverse as Henry Miller 
and Theodor Adorno have concluded, there would be no need of art in a 
disalienated world. What art has ineffectively striven to capture and express 
would once again be a reality, the false antidote of culture forgotten. 

Art is a language and so, evidently, is ritual, among the earliest cul- 
tural and symbolic institutions. Julia Kristeva (1989) commented on "the 
close relation of grammar to ritual," and Frits Staal's studies of Vedic 
ritual (1982, 1986, 1988) demonstrated to him that syntax can completely 
explain the form and meaning of ritual. As Chris Knight (1996) noted, 
speech and ritual are "interdependent aspects of one and the same 
symbolic domain. " 

Essential for the breakthrough of the cultural in human affairs, 
ritual is not only a means of aligning or prescribing emotions; it is also a 
formalization that is intimately linked with hierarchies and formal 
rule over individuals. All known tribal societies and early civilizations had 
hierarchical organizations built on or bound up with a ritual structure 
and matching conceptual system. 

Examples of the link between ritual and inequality, developing 
even prior to agriculture, are widespread (Gans 1985, Conkey 1984). 
Rites serve a safety valve function for the discharge of tensions gener- 
ated by emerging divisions in society and work to create and maintain 
social cohesion. Earlier on there was no need of devices to unify what 
was, in a non-division of labor context, still whole and unstratified. 

It has often been said that the function of the symbol is to disclose 
structures of the real that are inaccessible to empirical observation. More to 
the point, in terms of the processes of culture and civilization, however, is 
Abner Cohen's contention (1981, 1993) that symbolism and ritual 
disguise, mystify and sanctify irksome duties and roles and thus make 
them seem desirable. Or, as David Parkin (1992) put it, the compulsory 
nature of ritual blunts the natural autonomy of individuals by placing 
them at the service of authority. 

Ostensibly opposed to estrangement, the counter-world of public 
rites is arrayed against the current of historical direction. But, again, 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 


this is a delusion, since ritual facilitates the establishment of 
the cultural order, bedrock of alienated theory and practice. Ritual 
authority structures play an important part in the organization 
of production (division of labor) and actively further the coming 
of domestication. Symbolic categories are set up to control the 
wild and alien; thus the domination of women proceeds, a 
development brought to full realization with agriculture, 
when women become essentially beasts of burden and/or 
sexual objects. Part of this fundamental shift is movement 
toward territorialism and warfare; Johnson and Earle (1987) 
discussed the correspondence between this movement and the 
increased importance of ceremonialism. 

According to James Shreeve (1995), "In the ethnographic record, 
wherever you get inequality, it is justified by invoking the sacred." 
Relatedly, all symbolism, says Eliade (1985), was originally 
religious symbolism. Social inequality seems to be accompanied 
by subjugation in the non-human sphere. M. Reinach (quoted in 
Radm, 1927) said, "thanks to magic, man takes the offensive 
against the objective world." Cassirer (1955) phrased it this way: 
"Nature yields nothing without ceremonies." Out of ritual action 
arose the shaman, who was not only the first specialist because of 
his or her role in this area, but the first cultural practitioner in 
general. The earliest art was accomplished by shamans, as they 
assumed ideological leadership and designed the content of 

This original specialist became the regulator of group emotions, 
and as the shaman's potency increased, there was a corresponding 
decrease in the psychic vitality of the rest of the group 
(Lommel, 1967). Centralized authority, and most likely 
religion too, grew out of the elevated position of the shaman. 
The specter of social complexity was incarnated in this 
individual who wielded symbolic power. Every head man and 
chief developed from the primacy of this figure in the lives of 
others in the group. 

Religion, like art, contributed to a common symbolic grammar 
needed by the new social order and its fissures and anxieties. 
The word is based on the Latin religare, to tie or bind, and a Greek 


Running on Emptiness 

and transcendence by means of the symbolic. Religion finds no basis for 
its existence prior to the wrong turn taken toward culture and the 
civilized (domesticated). The American philosopher George Santayana 
summed it up well with, "Another world to live in is what we mean by 
religion. " 

Since Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) we have understood that human 
evolution greatly accelerated culturally at a time of insignificant 
physiological change. Thus symbolic being did not depend on waiting 
for the right gifts to evolve. We can now see, with Clive Gamble (1994), 
that intention in human action did not arrive with domestica- 

The native denizens of Africa's Kalahari Desert, as studied by Laurens 
van der Post (1976), lived in "a state of complete trust, dependence and 
interdependence with nature," which was "far kinder to them than any 
civilization ever was." Egalitarianism and sharing were the hallmark 
qualities of hunter-gatherer life (G. Isaac 1976, Ingold 1987, 1988, 
Erdal and Whiten 1992, etc.), which is more accurately called gatherer- 
hunter life, or the foraging mode. In fact, the great bulk of this diet 
consisted of plant material, and there is no conclusive evidence for hunting 
at all prior to the Upper Paleolithic (Binford 1984, 1985). 

An instructive look at contemporary primitive societies is Colin 
Turnbull's work (1961, 1965) on pygmies of the Ituri forest and their 
Bantu neighbors. The pygmies are foragers, living with no religion or 
culture. They are seen as immoral and ignorant by the agriculturalist 
Bantu, but enjoy much greater individualism and freedom. To the 
annoyance of the Bantu, the pygmies irreverently mock the solemn 
rites of the latter and their sense of sin. Rejecting territorialism, much 
less private holdings, they "move freely in an uncharted, unsystem- 
atized, unbounded social world," according to Mary Douglas (1973). 

The vast era prior to the coming of symbolic being is an enor- 
mously prominent reality and a question mark to some. Commenting 
on this "period spanning more than a million years," Tim Ingold 
(1993) called it "one of the most profound enigmas known to archaeo- 
logical science." But the longevity of this stable, non-cultural epoch 
has a simple explanation: as E Goodman (1988) surmised, "It was 
such a harmonious existence, and such a successful adaptation, that it 
did not materially alter for many thousands of years." 

The Failure of symbolic Thought 


Culture triumphed at last with domestication. The scope of life became 
narrower, more specialized, forcibly divorced from its previous grace and 
spontaneous liberty. The assault of a symbolic orientation upon the 
natural also had immediate outward results. Early rock drawings, 
found 125 miles from the nearest recorded trickle of water in the 
Sahara, show people swimming. Elephants were still somewhat common in 
some coastal Mediterranean zones in 500 BC, wrote Herodotus. Historian 
Clive Ponting (1992) has shown that every civilization has diminished 
the health of its environment. 

And cultivation definitely did not provide a higher-quality or more 
reliable food base (M.N. Cohen 1989, Walker and Shipman 1996), 
though it did introduce diseases of all kinds, almost completely unknown 
outside civilization (Burkett 1978, Freund 1982), and sexual inequality (M. 
Ehrenberg 1989, A. Getty 1996). Frank Waters' Book 
of the Hopi (1963) gives us a stunning picture of unchecked division of 
labor and the poverty of the symbolic: "More and more they traded for 
things they didn't need, and the more goods they got, the more they 
wanted. This was very serious. For they did not realize they were drawing 
away, step by step, from the good life given them." 

A pertinent chapter from The Time Before History (1996) by 
Colin Tudge bears a title that speaks volumes, "The End of Eden: Farming." 
Much of an underlying epistemological distinction is revealed in this 
contrast by Ingold (1993): "In short, whereas for farmers and 
herdsmen the tool is an instrument of control, for hunters and 
gatherers it would better be regarded as an instrument of revelation." And 
Horkheimer (1972) bears quoting, in terms of the psychic cost of 
domestication/domination of nature: "the destruction of the inner life 
is the penalty man has to pay for having no respect for any life other 
than his own." Violence directed outward is at the same time inflicted 
spiritually, and the outside world becomes transformed, debased, as 
surely as the perceptual field was subjected to fundamental redefinition. 
Nature certainly did not ordain civilization; quite the contrary. 

Today it is fashionable, if not mandatory, to maintain that culture 
always was and always will be. Even though it is demonstrably the case 
that there was an extremely long non-symbolic human era, perhaps one 
hundred times as long as that of civilization, and that culture has 


Running On Emptiness 

gained only at the expense of nature, one has it from all sides that the 
symbolic — like alienation — is eternal. Thus questions of origins and 
destinations are meaningless. Nothing can be traced further than the 
semiotic in which everything is trapped. 

But the limits of the dominant rationality and the costs of civiliza- 
tion are too starkly visible for us to accept this kind of cop-out. Since 
the ascendance of the symbolic humans have been trying, through par- 
ticipation in culture, to recover an authenticity we once lived. The constant 
urge or quest for the transcendent testifies that the hegemony of 
absence is a cultural constant. As Thomas McFarland (1987) found, "culture 
primarily witnesses the absence of meaning, not its presence." 

Massive, unfulfilling consumption, within the dictates of produc- 
tion and social control, reigns as the chief everyday consolation for this 
absence of meaning, and culture is certainly itself a prime consumer choice. 
At base, it is division of labor that ordains our false and disabling 
symbolic totality. "The increase in specialization ..." wrote Peter Lomas 
(1996), "undermines our confidence in our ordinary capacity to live." 

We are caught in the cultural logic of objectification and the 
objectifying logic of culture, such that those who counsel new ritual 
and other representational forms as the route to a re-enchanted exis- 
tence miss the point completely. More of what has failed for so long 
can hardly be the answer. Levi-Strauss (1978) referred to "a kind of 
wisdom [that primitive peoples] practiced spontaneously and the rejec- 
tion of which, by the modern world, is the real madness." 

Either the non-symbolizing health that once obtained, in all its 
dimensions, or madness and death. Culture has led us to betray our 
own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of 
synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement. Which is not to say 
that there are no more everyday pleasures, without which we would 
lose our humanness. But as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much 
must be erased for our redemption. 




The dimension of time seems to be attracting great notice, to judge 
from the number of recent movies that focus on it, such as Back to the 
Future, Terminator, Peggy Sue Got Married, etc. Stephen Hawkmg's A 
Brief History of Time (1988) was a best-seller and became, even more 
surprisingly, a popular film. Remarkable, in addition to the number of 
books that deal with time, are the larger number which don't, really, but 
which feature the word in their titles nonetheless, such as Virginia 
Spate's The Color of Time: Claude Monet (1992). Such references have 
to do, albeit indirectly, with the sudden, panicky awareness of time, the 
frightening sense of our being tied to it. Time is increasingly a key 
manifestation of the estrangement and humiliation that characterize 
modern existence. It illuminates the entire, deformed landscape and 
will do so ever more harshly until this landscape and all the forces that 
shape it are changed beyond recognizing. 

This contribution to the subject has little to do with time's fasci- 
nation for film-makers or TV producers, or with the current academic 
interest in geologic conceptions of time, the history of clock technol- 
ogy and the sociology of time, or with personal observations and coun- 
sels on its use. Neither aspects nor excesses of time deserve as much 
attention as time's inner meaning and logic. For despite the fact that 
time's perplexing character has become, in John Michon's estimation, 

18 Running on Emptiness 

"almost an intellectual obsession" (1988), society is plainly incapable of 
dealing with it. 

With time we confront a philosophical enigma, a psychological 
mystery, and a puzzle of logic. Not surprisingly, considering the massive 
reification involved, some have doubted its existence since humanity began 
distinguishing "time itself from visible and tangible changes in the world. 
As Michael Ende (1984) put it: "There is in the world a great and yet 
ordinary secret. A n of us are part of it, everyone is aware of it, but very 
few ever think of it. Most of us just accept it and never wonder over it. 
This secret is time." 

Just what is "time"? Spengler declared that no one should be allowed 
to ask. The physicist Richard Feynman (1988) answered, "Don't even 
ask me. It's just too hard to think about." Empirically as much as in theory, 
the laboratory is powerless to reveal the flow of time, since no instrument 
exists that can register its passage. But why do we have such a strong sense 
that time does pass, ineluctably and in one particular direction, if it really 
doesn't? Why does this "illusion" have such a hold over us? We might just 
as well ask why alienation has such a hold over us. The passage of time is 
intimately familiar, the concept of time mockingly elusive; why should this 
appear bizarre, in a world whose survival depends on the mystification of its 
most basic categories? 

We have gone along with the substantiation of time so that it 
seems a fact of nature, a power existing in its own right. The growth of a 
sense of time — the acceptance of time — is a process of adaptation to an 
ever more reified world. It is a constructed dimension, the most ele- 
mental aspect of culture. Time's inexorable nature provides the ultimate 
model of domination. 

The further we go in time the worse it gets. We inhabit an age of 
the disintegration of experience, according to Adorno. The pressure of 
time, like that of its essential progenitor, division of labor, fragments 
and disperses all before it. Uniformity, equivalence, separation are 
byproducts of time's harsh force. The intrinsic beauty and meaning of 
that fragment of the world that is not-yet-culture moves steadily toward 
annihilation under a single cultures-wide clock. Paul Ricoeur's assertion 
that "we are not capable of producing a concept of time that is at once 
cosmological, biological, historical and individual," fails to notice how they 
are converging. 

Time and Its Discontents 


Concerning this "fiction" that upholds and accompanies all the forms 
of imprisonment, "the world is filled with propaganda alleging its 
existence," as Bernard Aaronson (1972) put it so well. "All awareness," 
wrote the poet Denise Levertov (1974), "is an awareness of time," 
showing just how deeply alienated we are in time. We have become 
regimented under its empire, as time and alienation continue to 
deepen their intrusion, their debasement of everyday life. "Does this 
mean," as David Carr (1986) asks, "that the 'struggle' of existence is to 
overcome time itself?" It may be that exactly this is the last enemy to 
be overcome. 

In coming to grips with this ubiquitous yet phantom adversary, it 
is somewhat easier to say what time is not. It is not synonymous, for 
fairly obvious reasons, with change. Nor is it sequence, or order of suc- 
cession. Pavlov's dog, for instance, must have learned that the sound of 
the bell was followed by feeding; how else could it have been condi- 
tioned to salivate at that sound? But dogs do not possess time consciousness, 
so before and after cannot be said to constitute time. 

Somewhat related are inadequate attempts to account for our all but 
inescapable sense of time. The neurologist Gooddy (1988), rather along 
the lines of Kant, describes it as one of our "subconscious assumptions 
about the world." Some have described it, no more helpfully, as a 
product of the imagination, and the philosopher J.J.C. Smart (1980) 
decided that it is a feeling that "arises out of metaphysical confusion." 
McTaggart (1934), F.H. Bradley (1930), and Dummett (1978) have been 
among 20th century thinkers who have decided against the existence of 
time because of its logically contradictory features, but it seems fairly 
plain that the presence of time has far deeper causes than mere mental 

There is nothing even remotely similar to time. It is as unnatural 
and yet as universal as alienation. Chacalos (1989) points out that the 
present is a notion just as puzzling and intractable as time itself. What is 
the present? We know that it is always now; one is confined to it, in an 
important sense, and can experience no other "part" of time. We speak 
confidently of other parts, however, which we call "past" and "future." But 
whereas things that exist in space elsewhere than here continue to exist, 
things that don't exist now, as Sklar (1992) observes, don't really exist at 


Running on Emptiness 

Time necessarily flows; without its passage there would be no sense 
of time. Whatever flows, though, flows with respect to time. Time 
therefore flows with respect to itself, which is meaningless owing to the 
fact that nothing can flow with respect to itself No vocabulary is 
available for the abstract explication of time apart from a vocabulary in 
which time is already presupposed. What is necessary is to put all the 
givens into question. Metaphysics, with a narrowness that division of 
labor has imposed from its inception, is too narrow for such a task. 

What causes time to flow, what is it that moves it toward the future? 
Whatever it is, it must be beyond our time, deeper and more powerful. It 
must depend as Conly (1975) had it, "upon elemental forces which are 
continually in operation. " 

William Spanos (1987) has noted that certain Latin words for 
culture not only signify agriculture or domestication, but are transla- 
tions from Greek terms for the spatial image of time. We are, at base, 
"time-binders," in Alfred Korzybski's lexicon (1948); the species, due to 
this characteristic, creates a symbolic class of life, an artificial world. 
Time-binding reveals itself in an "enormous increase in the control 
over nature." Time becomes real because it has consequences, and this 
efficacy has never been more painfully apparent. 

Life, in its barest outline, is said to be a journey through time; that it 
is a journey through alienation is the most public of secrets. "No clock 
strikes for the happy one," says a German proverb. Passing time, once 
meaningless, is now the inescapable beat, restricting and coercing us, 
mirroring blind authority itself. Guyau (1890) determined the flow of 
time to be "the distinction between what one needs and what one has," 
and therefore "the incipience of regret." Carpe diem, the maxim counsels, 
but civilization forces us always to mortgage the present to the future. 

Time aims continually toward greater strictness of regularity and 
universality. Capital's technological world charts its progress by this, could 
not exist in its absence. "The importance of time," wrote Bertrand Russell 
(1929), lies "rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth." 
There is a longing that is as palpable as time has become. The denial of 
desire can be gauged no more definitively than via the vast construct we 
call time. 

Time, like technology, is never neutral; it is, as Castoriadis (1991) 

Time and Its Discontents 


rightly judged, "always endowed with meaning." Everything that com- 
mentators like Ellul (1964) have said about technology, in fact, applies to 
time, and more deeply. Both conditions are pervasive, omnipresent, 
basic, and in general as taken for granted as alienation itself. Time, like 
technology, is not only a determining fact but also the enveloping 
element in which divided society develops. Similarly, it demands that 
its subjects be painstaking, "realistic," serious, and above all, devoted to 
work. It is autonomous in its overall aspect, like technology; it goes on 
forever of its own accord. 

But like division of labor, which stands behind and sets in motion 
time and technology, it is, after all, a socially learned phenomenon. Humans, 
and the rest of the world, are synchronized to time and its technical 
embodiment, rather than the reverse. Central to this dimension — as it is 
to alienation per se — is the feeling of being a helpless spectator. Every rebel, 
it follows, also rebels against time and its relentlessness. Redemption must 
involve, in a very fundamental sense, redemption from time. 

"Time is the accident of accidents," according to Epicurus. Upon 
closer examination, however, its genesis appears less mysterious. It has 
occurred to many, in fact, that notions such as "the past," "the 
present," and "the future" are more linguistic than actual or physical. The 
neo-Freudian theorist Lacan, for example, decided that the time experience is 
essentially an effect of language. A person with no language would likely 
have no sense of the passage of time. RA. Wilson (1980), moving much 
closer to the point, suggested that language was initiated by the need to 
express symbolic time. Gosseth (1972) argued that the system of tenses 
found in Indo-European languages developed along with consciousness 
of a universal or abstract time. Time and language are coterminous, 
decided Derrida (1982): "to be in the one is to be in the other." Time is 
a symbolic construct immediately prior, relatively speaking, to all the 
others and which requires language for its actualization. 

Paul Valery (1962) referred to the fall of the species into time as sig- 
nalling alienation from nature; "by a sort of abuse, man creates time," he 
wrote. In the timeless epoch before this fall, which constituted the over- 
whelming majority of our existence as humans, life, as has often been 
said, had a rhythm but not a progression. It was the state when the soul 


Empti ness 

Running on 

could "gather in the whole of its being," in Rousseau's words, in the 
absence of temporal strictures, "where time is nothing to the soul." Activ- 
ities themselves, usually of a leisurely character, were the points of refer- 
ence before time and civilization; nature provided the necessary signals, 
quite independent of "time." Humanity must have been conscious of 
memories and purposes long before any explicit distinctions were drawn 
among past, present, and future (Fraser, 1990). Furthermore, as the linguist 
Whorf (1956) estimated, "preliterate [primitive 1 ] communities, far from 
being subrational, may show the human mind functioning on a higher and 
more complex plane of rationality than among civilized men." 

The largely hidden key to the symbolic world is time; indeed it is at 
the origin of human symbolic activity. Time thus occasions the first 
alienation, the route away from aboriginal richness and wholeness. "Out 
of the simultaneity of experience, the event of Language," says Charles 
Simic (1971) "is an emergence into linear time." Researchers such as 
Zohar (1982) consider faculties of telepathy and precognition to have 
been sacrificed for the sake of evolution into symbolic life. If this 
sounds far-fetched, the sober positivist Freud (1932) viewed telepathy as 
quite possibly "the original archaic means through which individuals 
understand one another." If the perception and apperception of time 
relate to the very essence of cultural life (Gurevich 1976), the advent of 
this time sense and its concomitant culture represent an impoverishment, 
even a disfigurement, by time. 

The consequences of this intrusion of time, via language, indicate 
that the latter is no more innocent, neutral, or assumption-free than the 
former. Time is not only, as Kant said, at the foundation of all our 
representations, but, by this fact, also at the foundation of our adapta- 
tion to a qualitatively reduced, symbolic world. Our experience in this 
world is under an all-pervasive pressure to be representation, to be almost 
unconsciously degraded into symbols and measurements. "Time," wrote 
the German mystic Meister Eckhart, "is what keeps the light from 
reaching us." 

Time awareness is what empowers us to deal with our environment 
symbolically; there is no time apart from this estrangement. It is by 
means of progressive symbolization that time becomes naturalized, 
becomes a given, is removed from the sphere of conscious cultural pro- 

Time and Its Discontents 


actualized in narrative," is another way of putting it (Ricoeur 1984). The 
symbolic accretions in this process constitute a steady throttling of 
instinctive desire; repression develops the sense of time unfolding. 
Immediacy gives way, replaced by the mediations that make history 
possible — language in the forefront. 

One begins to see past such banalities as "time is an incomprehen- 
sible quality of the given world" (Sebba 1991). Number, art, religion 
make their appearances in this "given" world, disembodied phenomena 
of reified life. These emerging rites, in turn, Gurevitch (1964) sur- 
mises, lead to "the production of new symbolic contents, thus encour- 
aging time leaping forward." Symbols, including time, of course, now 
have lives of their own, in this cumulative, interacting progression. David 
Brame's The Reality of Time and the Existence of God (1988) is 
illustrative. It argues that it is precisely time's reality which proves the 
existence of God; civilization's perfect logic. 

All ritual is an attempt, through symbolism, to return to the time- 
less state. Ritual is a gesture of abstraction from that state, however, a 
false step that only leads further away. The "timelessness" of number is 
part of this trajectory, and contributes much to time as a fixed 
concept. In fact, Blumenberg (1983) seems largely correct in assaying 
that "time is not measured as something that has been present all 
along; instead it is produced, for the first time, by measurement." To 
express time we must, in some way, quantify it; number is therefore 
essential. Even where time has already appeared, a slowly more divided 
social existence works toward its progressive reification only by means of 
number. The sense of passing time is not keen among tribal peoples, for 
example, who do not mark it with calendars or clocks. 

Time: an original meaning of the word in ancient Greek is division. 
Number, when added to time, makes the dividing or separating that 
much more potent. The non-civilized often have considered it "unlucky" to 
count living creatures, and generally resist adopting the practice (e.g. 
Dobrizhoffer 1822). The intuition for number was far from spontaneous 
and inevitable, but "already in early civilizations," Schimmel (1992) 
reports, "one feels that numbers are a reality having as it were a 
magnetic power field around them." It is not surprising that among 
ancient cultures with the strongest emerging senses of time — Egyptian, 
Babylonian, Mayan — we see numbers associated with 


Running on Emptiness 

ritual figures and deities; indeed the Mayans and Babylonians both had 
number gods (Barrow 1992). 

Much later the clock, with its face of numbers, encouraged society 
to abstract and quantify the experience of time still further. Every 
clock reading is a measurement that joins the clock watcher to the "flow 
of time." And we absently delude ourselves that we know what time is 
because we know what time it is. If we did away with clocks, Shallis (1982) 
reminds us, objective time would also disappear. More fundamentally, if we 
did away with specialization and technology, alienation would be banished. 

The mathematizing of nature was the basis for the birth of modern 
rationalism and science in the West. This had stemmed from demands for 
number and measurement in connection with similar teachings about time, 
in the service of mercantile capitalism. The continuity of number and 
time as a geometrical locus were fundamental to the Scientific 
Revolution, which projected Galileo's dictum to measure all that is 
measurable and make measurable that which is not. Mathematically 
divisible time is necessary for the conquest of nature, and for even the 
rudiments of modern technology. 

From this point on, number-based symbolic time became crush- 
ingly real, an abstract construction "removed from and even contrary to 
every internal and external human experience" (Syzamosi 1986). Under its 
pressure, money and language, merchandise and information have 
become steadily less distinguishable, and division of labor more extreme. 

To symbolize is to express time consciousness, for the symbol 
embodies the structure of time (Darby 1982). Clearer still is Meerloo's 
formulation: "To understand a symbol and its development is to grasp 
human history in a nutshell." The contrast is the life of the non-civilized, 
lived in a capacious present that cannot be reduced to the single moment 
of the mathematical present. As the continual now gave way to increasing 
reliance upon systems of significant symbols (language, number, art, 
ritual, myth) dislodged from the now, the further abstraction, history, began 
to develop. Historical time is no more inherent in reality, no less an 
imposition on it, than the earlier, less Choate forms of time. 

In a slowly more synthetic context, astronomical observation is 

invested with new meanings. Once pursued for its own sake, it comes 

Time and Its Discontents 


to provide the vehicle for scheduling rituals and coordinating the activ- 
ities of complex society. With the help of the stars, the year and its divisions 
exist as instruments of organizational authority (Leach 1954). The 
formation of a calendar is basic to the formation of a civilization. The 
calendar was the first symbolic artifact that regulated social behavior by 
keeping track of time. And what is involved is not the control of time 
but its opposite: enclosure by time in a world of very real alienation. 
One recalls that our word comes from the Latin calends, the first day of 
the month, when business accounts had to be settled. 

"No time is entirely present," said the Stoic Chrysippus, and meanwhile 
the concept of time was being further advanced by the underlying .Tudeo- 
Christian tenet of a linear, irreversible path between creation and salvation. 
This essentially historical view of time is the very core of Christianity; 
all the basic notions of measurable, one-way time can be found in St. 
Augustine's (fifth-century) writings. With the spread of the new 
religion the strict regulation of time, on a practical plane, was needed 
to help maintain the discipline of monastic life. Bells summoning the 
monks to prayer eight times daily were heard far beyond the confines of 
the cloister, and thus a measure of time regulation was imposed on 
society at large. The population continued to exhibit "une vaste 
indifference au temps" throughout the feudal era, according to Marc Bloch 
(1940), but it is no accident that the first public clocks adorned 
cathedrals in the West. Worth noting in this regard is the fact that the 
calling of precise prayer times became the chief externalization of 
medieval Islamic belief. 

The invention of the mechanical clock was one of the most impor- 
tant turning points in the history of science and technology; indeed of 
all human art and culture (Synge 1959). The improvement in accuracy 
presented authority with enhanced opportunities for oppression. An 
early devotee of elaborate mechanical clocks, for example, was Duke Gian 
Galeazzo Visconti, described in 1381 as "a sedate but crafty ruler with a 
great love of order and precision" (Fraser 1988). As Weizenbaum (1976) 
wrote, the clock began to create "literally a new reality ... that was and 
remains an impoverished version of the old one." 

A qualitative change was introduced. Even when nothing was hap- 
pening, time did not cease to flow. Events, from this era on, are put into 
this homogeneous, objectively measured, moving envelope — and 


Running on Emptiness 

this unilinear progression incited resistance. The most extreme were the 
chiliast, or millenarian, movements, which appeared in various parts of 
Europe from the 14th into the 17th centuries. These generally took the 
form of peasant risings which aimed at recreating the primal egalitarian 
state of nature and were explicitly opposed to historical time. These 
Utopian explosions were quelled, but remnants of earlier time concepts 
persisted as a "lower" stratum of folk consciousness in many areas. 

During the Renaissance, domination by time reached a new level as 
public clocks now tolled all twenty -four hours of the day and added 
new hands to mark the passing seconds. A keen sense of time's all-con- 
suming presence is the great discovery of the age, and nothing portrays 
this more graphically than the figure of Father Time. Renaissance art 
fused the Greek god Kronos with the Roman god Saturn to form the 
familiar grim deity representing the power of Time, armed with a fatal 
scythe signifying his association with agriculture/domestication. The Dance 
of Death and other medieval memento mori artifacts preceded Father 
Time, but the subject is now time rather than death. 

The seventeenth century was the first in which people thought of 
themselves as inhabiting a particular century. One now needed to take 
one's bearings within time. Francis Bacon's The Masculine Birth of 
Time (1603) and A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1605) embraced 
the deepening dimension and revealed how a heightened sense of time 
could serve the new scientific spirit. "To choose time is to save 
time," he wrote, and "Truth is the daughter of time." Descartes 
followed, introducing the idea of time as limitless. He was one of the 
first advocates of the modern idea of progress, closely related to that of 
unbounded linear time, and characteristically expressing itself in his famous 
invitation that we become "masters and possessors of nature." 

Newton's clockwork universe was the crowning achievement of the 
Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, and was grounded in 
his conception of "Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and 
from its own nature, flowing equably without relation to anything eternal." 
Time is now the grand ruler, answering to no one, influenced by 
nothing, completely independent of the environment: the model of 
unassailable authority and perfect guarantor of unchanging alienation. 

Time and Its Discontents 


Classical Newtonian physics in fact remains, despite changes in 
science, the dominant, everyday conception of time. 

The appearance of independent, abstract time found its parallel in 
the emergence of a growing, formally free working class forced to sell 
its labor power as an abstract commodity on the market. Prior to the 
coming of the factory system but already subject to time's disciplinary 
power, this labor force was the inverse of the monarch Time: free and 
independent in name only. In Foucault's judgment (1973), the West 
had become a "carceral society' from this point on. Perhaps more 
directly to the point is the Balkan proverb, "A clock is a lock." 

In 1749 Rousseau threw away his watch, a symbolic rejection of 
modern science and civilization. Somewhat more in the dominant spirit 
of the age, however, were the gifts of 5 1 watches to Marie Antoinette upon 
her engagement. The word is certainly appropriate, as people had to 
"watch" the time more and more; watches would soon become one of 
the first consumer durables of the industrial era. 

William Blake and Goethe both attacked Newton, the symbol of 
the new time and science, for his distancing of life from the sensual, 
his reduction of the natural to the measurable. Capitalist ideologue 
Adam Smith, on the other hand, echoed and extended Newton, by 
calling for greater rationalization and routinization. Smith, like Newton, 
labored under the spell of an increasingly powerful and remorseless time 
in promoting further division of labor as objective and absolute 

The Puritans had proclaimed waste of time the first and in princi- 
ple the deadliest of sins (Weber 1921); this became, about a century 
later, Ben Franklin's "Time is money." The factory system was initiated 
by clockmakers and the clock was the symbol and fountainhead of the 
order, discipline and repression required to create an industrial prole- 

Hegel's grand system in the early 19th century heralded the "push 
into time" that is History's momentum; time is our "destiny and neces- 
sity," he declared. Postone (1993) noted that the "progress" of abstract 
time is closely tied to the "progress" of capitalism as a way of life. Waves 
of industrialism drowned the resistance of the Luddites; appraising this 
general period, Lyotard (1988) decided that "the illness of time was now 
incurable. " 


Running On Emptiness 

An increasingly complex class society requires an ever larger array of 
time signals. Fights against time, as Thompson (1967) and Hohn 
(1984) have pointed out, gave way to struggles over time; resistance to 
being yoked to time and its inherent demands was defeated in general, 
replaced, typically, by disputes over the fair determination of time schedules 
or the length of the work day. [In an address to the First International (July 
28, 1868), Karl Marx advocated, by the way, age nine as the time to 
begin work.] 

The clock descended from the cathedral, to court and courthouse, 
next to the bank and railway station, and finally to the wrist and pocket 
of each decent citizen. Time had to become more "democratic" in order 
to truly colonize subjectivity. The subjection of outer nature, as Adorno 
and others have understood, is successful only in the measure of the 
conquest of inner nature. The unleashing of the forces of production, to 
put it another way, depended on time's victory in its long-waged war on 
freer consciousness. Industrialism brought with it a more complete 
commodification of time, time in its most predatory form yet. It was 
this that Giddens (1981) saw as "the key to the deepest 
transformations of day-to-day social life that are brought about by the 
emergence of capitalism." 

"Time marches on," as the saying goes, in a world increasingly 
dependent on time and a time increasingly unified. A single giant 
clock hangs over the world and dominates. It pervades all; in its court 
there is no appeal. The standardization of world time marks a victory 
for the efficient/machine society, a universalism that undoes particular- 
ity as surely as computers lead to homogemzation of thought. 

Paul Virilio (1986) has gone so far as to foresee that "the loss of material 
space leads to the government of nothing but time." A further provocative 
notion posits a reversal of the birth of history out of maturing time. Virilio 
(1991), in fact, finds us already living within a system of technological 
temporality where history has been eclipsed. "... the primary 
question becomes less one of relations to history than one of relations 
to time. " 

Such theoretical flights aside, however, there is ample evidence and 
testimony as to time's central role in society. In "Time — The Next 
Source of Competitive Advantage" (July-August, 1988 Harvard Busi- 
ness Review), George Stark, Jr. discusses it as pivotal in the positioning 

Time and Its Discontents 


of capital: "Asa strategic weapon, time is the equivalent of money, pro- 
ductivity, quality, even innovation." Time management is certainly not 
confined to the corporations; Tevine's 1985 study of publicly accessible 
clocks in six countries demonstrated that their accuracy was an exact 
gauge of the relative industrialization of national life. Paul Adler's January- 
February, 1993 Harvard Business Review offering, "Time-andMotion 
Regained," nakedly champions the neo-Taylorist standardization and 
regimentation of work: behind the well-publicized "workplace democracy" 
window dressing in some factories remains the "time-andmotion discipline 
and formal bureaucratic structures essential for efficiency and quality in 
routine operations. " 

It is clear that the advent of writing facilitated the fixation of time 
concepts and the beginning of history. But as the anthropologist Goody 
(1986) points out, "oral cultures are often only too prepared to accept 
these innovations." They have already been conditioned, after all, by 
language itself. McLuhan (1962) discussed how the coming of the 
printed book, and mass literacy, reinforced the logic of linear time. 

Fife was steadily forced to adapt. "For now hash time made me his 
numbering clock," wrote Shakespeare in Richard H. "Time," like 
"rich," was one of the favorite words of the Bard, a time -haunted figure. A 
hundred years later, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe reflected how little escape 
from time seemed possible. Marooned on a desert island, Crusoe is deeply 
concerned with the passage of time; keeping close track of his affairs, 
even in such a setting, meant above all keeping track of the time, 
especially as long as his pen and ink lasted. 

Northrop Frye (1950) saw the "alliance of time and Western man" as 
the defining characteristic of the novel. Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (19 
57) likewise focused on the new concern with time that stimulated the 
novel's emergence in the eighteenth century. As Jonathan Swift told it 
in Gulliver's Travels (1726), his protagonist never did anything without 
looking at his watch. "He called it his oracle, and said it pointed out 
the time for every action of his life." The Tilliputians concluded that the 
watch was Gulliver's god. Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760), on the eve of 
the Industrial Revolution, begins with the mother of Tristram interrupting 
his father at the moment of their monthly coitus: '"Pray, my dear, 1 quoth 
my mother, 'have you not forgot to wind up the clock?'" 


Running On Emptiness 

In the nineteenth century Poe satirized the authority of clocks, linking 
them to bourgeois superficiality and obsession with order. Time is the 
real subject of Flaubert's novels, according to Hauser (1956), as 
Walter Pater (1901) sought in literature the "wholly concrete moment" 
which would "absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the 
present," similar to Joyce's celebration of "epiphanies." InMarius the 
Epicurean (1909), Pater depicts Marius suddenly realizing "the possibility 
of a real world beyond time." Meanwhile Swinburne looked for a respite 
beyond "time-stricken lands" and Baudelaire declared his fear and hatred of 
chronological time, the devouring foe. 

The disorientation of an age wracked by time and subject to the 
acceleration of history has led modern writers to deal with time from 
new and extreme points of view. Proust delineated interrelationships among 
events that transcended conventional temporal order and thus violated 
Newtonian conceptions of causation. His thirteen-volume -a la Recherche 
du Temps Perdu (1925), usually rendered in English as Remembrance of 
Things Past, is more literally and accurately translated as Searching for 
Lost Time. In it he judges that "a minute freed from the order of time 
has recreated in us ... the individual freed from the order of time," and 
recognizes "the only environment in which one could live and enjoy the 
essence of things, that is to say, entirely outside time." 

Philosophy in the twentieth century has been largely preoccupied 
with time. Consider the misguided attempts to locate authentic time 
by thinkers as different as Bergson and Heidegger, or the latter's virtual 
deification of time. A. A. Mendilow's Time and the Novel (1952) reveals 
how the same intense interest has dominated the novels of the century, 
in particular those of Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, James, Gide, Mann, and 
of course, Proust. Other studies, such as Church's Time and Reality 
(1962), have expanded this list of novelists to include, among others, 
Kafka, Sartre, Faulkner, and Vonnegut. 

And of course time-struck literature cannot be confined to the 
novel. T.S. Eliot's poetry often expressed a yearning to escape time -bound, 
time-ridden conventionality. "Burnt Norton" (1941) is a good example, 
with these lines: 

Time past and time future 

Time and Its Discontents 


Allow but a little consciousness. 
To be conscious is not to be in time. 

Samuel Beckett, early in his career (1931), wrote pointedly of "the 
poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction." The play Waiting 
for Godot (1955) is an obvious candidate in this regard, and so is his 
Murphy (1957), in which time becomes reversible in the mind of the 
main character. When the clock may go either way, our sense of time, 
and time itself, vanishes. 

Turning to what is commonly called psychology, we again come upon 
one of the most fundamental questions: Is there really a phenomenon of 
time that exists apart from any individual, or does it reside only in 
one's perceptions of it? Husserl, for example, failed to show why 
consciousness in the modern world seems to inevitably constitute itself 
in time. We know that experiences, like events of every other kind, are 
neither past, present nor future in themselves. 

Whereas there was little sociological interest in time until the 
1970s, the number of studies of time in the literature of psychology 
has increased rapidly since 1930 (Lauer 1988). Time is perhaps hardest 
of all to define "psychologically." What is time? What is the experience of 
time? What is alienation? What is the experience of alienation? If the 
latter subject were not so neglected the obvious interrelationship would 
be made clear. 

Davies (1977) termed time's passage "a psychological phenomenon 
of mysterious origin" and concluded (1983), "the secret of mind will 
only be solved when we understand the secret of time." Given the arti- 
ficial separation of the individual from society, which defines their field, it is 
inevitable that such psychologists and psychoanalysts as Eissler (1955), 
Loewald (1962), Namnum (1972), and Morris (1983) have encountered 
"great difficulties" in studying time! 

At least a few partial insights have been achieved, however. Hart- 
collis (1983), for instance, noted that time is not only an abstraction but a 
feeling, while Korzybski (1948) had already taken this further with his 
observation that "'time' is a feeling, produced by conditions of this 
world...." In all our lives we are "waiting for Godot," according to 
Arlow (1986), who believed that our experience of time arises out of 
unfulfilled emotional needs. Similarly, Reichenbach (1956) had 


Running On Emptiness 

termed anti-time philosophies, like religion, "documents of emotional 
dissatisfaction." In Freudian terms, Bergler and Roheim (1946) saw 
the passage of time as symbolizing separation periods originating in 
early infancy. "The calendar is an ultimate materialization of separation 
anxiety." If informed by a critical interest in the social and historical 
context, the implications of these undeveloped points could 
become serious contributions. Confined to psychology, however, they 
remain limited and even misleading. 

I n the world of alienation no adult can contrive or decree the freedom 
from time that the child habitually enjoys — and must be made to lose. 
Time training, the essence of schooling, is vitally important to society. 
This training, as Fraser (1989) very cogently puts it, "bears in almost 
paradigmatic form the features of a civilizing process." A patient of Joost 
Meerlo (1970) "expressed it sarcastically: 'Time is civilization, 1 by which 
she meant that scheduling and meticulousness were the great weapons 
used by adults to force the youngsters into submission and servility." 
Piaget's studies (1946, 1952) could detect no innate sense of time. 
Rather, the abstract notion of "time" is of considerable difficulty to the 
young. It is not something they learn automatically; there is no 
spontaneous orientation toward time (Hermelin and O'Connor 1971, Voyat 

Time and tidy are related etymologically, and our Newtonian idea of 
time represents perfect and universal ordering. The cumulative weight of 
this ever more pervasive pressure shows up in the increasing number of 
patients with time anxiety symptoms (Lawson 1990). Dooley (1941) 
referred to "the observed fact that people who are obsessive in character, 
whatever their type of neurosis, are those who make most extensive use of 
the sense of time...." Pettit's "Anality and Time" (1969) argued 
convincingly for the close connection between the two, as Meerloo 
(1966), citing the character and achievements of Mussolini and Eichmann, 
found " a definite connection between time compulsion and f ascistic 
aggression. " 

Capek (1961) called time "a huge and chronic hallucination of the 
human mmd"; there are few experiences indeed that can be said to be 
timeless. Orgasm, LSD, a life "flashing before one's eyes" in a moment 
of extreme danger ... these are some of the rare, evanescent situations 
intense enough to escape from time's insistence. 

Time and Its Discontents 


Timelessness is the ideal of pleasure, wrote Marcuse (1955). The 
passage of time, on the other hand, fosters the forgetting of what was 
and what can be. It is the enemy of erns and deep ally of the order of 
repression. The mental processes of the unconscious are in fact time- 
less, decided Freud (1920): "... time does not change them in any 
way and the idea of time cannot be applied to them." Thus desire is 
already outside of time. As Freud said in 1932: "There is nothing in 
the Id that corresponds to the notion of time; there is no recognition 
of the passage of time." 

Marie Bonaparte (1940) argued that time becomes ever more 
plastic and obedient to the pleasure principle insofar as we loosen the 
bonds of full ego control. Dreams are a form of thinking among non- 
civilized peoples (Kracke 1987); this faculty must have once been much 
more accessible to us. The Surrealists believed that reality could be 
much more fully understood if we could make the connection to our 
instinctive, subconscious experiences; Breton (1924), for example, 
proclaimed the radical goal of a resolution of dream and conscious reality. 

When we dream the sense of time is virtually nonexistent, replaced 
by a sensation of presentness. It should come as no surprise that 
dreams,which ignore the rules of time, would attract the notice of 
those searching for liberatory clues, or that the unconscious, with its 
"storms of impulse," frightens those with a stake in the neurosis we call 
civilization. Norman O. Brown (1959) saw the sense of time or history 
as a function of repression; if repression were abolished, he reasoned, we 
would be released from time. Similarly, Coleridge (1801) recognized in 
the man of "methodical industry" the origin and creator of time. 

In his Critique of Cynical Reason (1987), Peter Sloterdijk called for 
the "radical recognition of the Id without reservation," a narcissistic self- 
affirmation that would laugh in the face of morose society. Narcissism 
has of course traditionally been cast as wicked, the "heresy of self-love." 
In reality that meant it was reserved for the ruling classes, while all 
others (workers, women, slaves) had to practice submission and self- 
effacement (Fine 1 980). The narcissist symptoms are feelings of emptiness, 
unreality, alienation, life as no more than a succession of moments, 
accompanied by a longing for powerful autonomy and self- 


Running on Emptiness 

esteem (Alford 1988, Grunberger 1979). Given the appropriateness of 

these "symptoms" and desires it is little wonder that narcissism can 
be seen as a potentially emancipatory force (Zweig 1980). I t s demand 
for total satisfaction is obviously a subversive individualism, at 
a minimum. 
The narcissist "hates time, denies time" (letter to author, Alford 

1993) and this, as always, provokes a severe reaction from the 
defenders of time and authority. Psychiatrist E. Mark Stern (1977), for 
instance: "Since time begins beyond one's control one must correspond 
to its demands.... Courage is the antithesis of narcissism." This 
condition, which certainly may include negative aspects, contains the 
germ of a different reality principle, aiming at the non-time of perfec- 
tion wherein being and becoming are one and including, implicitly, 
a halt to time. 

I'm not a scientist but I do know that all things begin and end in eternity. 
— The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis 

Science, for our purposes, does not comment on time and 

estrangement with anywhere near the directness of, say, psychology. 
But science can be re-construed to shed light on the topic at hand, 

because of the many parallels between scientific theory and human 

"Time," decided N.A. Kozyrev (1971), "is the most important and 
the most mysterious phenomenon of Nature. Its notion is beyond the 

grasp of imagination. " Some scientists, in fact, have felt (e.g. Dingle 

1966) that "all the real problems associated with the notion of time are 
independent of physics." Science, and physics in particular, may 

indeed not have the last word; it is another source of commentary, 
however, though itself alienated and generally indirect. 

Is "physical time" the same as the time of which we are conscious; 
if not, how does it differ? In physics, time seems to be an undefined 

basic dimension, as much a taken-for-granted given as it is outside 
the realm of science. This is one way to remind ourselves that, as with 
every other kind of thinking, scientific ideas are meaningless outside 
their cultural context. They are symptoms of and symbol for the ways 

Time and Its Discontents 


of living that give rise to them. According to Nietzsche, all writing is 
inherently metaphorical, even though science is rarely looked at this 
way. Science has developed by drawing an increasingly sharp separa- 
tion between inner and outer worlds, between dream and "reality". 
This has been accomplished by the mathematization of nature, which 
has largely meant that the scientist proceeds by a method that debars him 
or her from the larger context, including the origins and significance of 
his/her projects. Nonetheless, as H.P. Robinson (1964) stated, "the 
cosmologies which humanity has set up at various times and in various 
localities inevitably reflect the physical and intellectual environment, 
including above all the interests and culture of each society." 

Subjective time, as P.C.W.Davies pointed out (1981), "possesses 
apparent qualities that are absent from the 'outside' world and which 
are fundamental to our conception of reality" — principally the 
"passing" of time. Our sense of separation from the world owes largely to 
this discrepancy. We exist in time (and alienation), but time is not found in 
the physical world. The time variable, though useful to science, is a 
theoretical construct. "The laws of science," Stephen Hawking (1988) 
explained, "do not distinguish between past and future." Einstein had gone 
further than this some thirty years earlier; in one of his last letters, he wrote 
that "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction 
between past, present and future is only a stubborn, persistent illusion." 
But science partakes of society in other ways concerning time, and very 
deeply. The more "rational" it becomes, the more variations in time are 
suppressed. Theoretical physics geometrizes time by conceiving it as a 
straight line, for example. Science does not stand apart from the cultural 
history of time. 

As implied above, however, physics does not contain the idea of a 
present instant of time that passes (Park 1972). Furthermore, the fun- 
damental laws are not only completely reversible as to the 'arrow of time' — 
as Hawking noted — but "irreversible phenomena appear as the result of 
the particular nature of our human cognition," according to Watanabe 
(1953). Once again we find human experience playing a decisive role, 
even in this most "objective" realm. Zee (1992) put it this way: "Time is 
that one concept in physics we can't talk about without dragging in, at some 
level, consciousness. " 

Even in seemingly straightforward areas ambiguities exist where 


Running on Emptiness 

time is concerned. While the complexity of the most complex species 
may increase, for example, not all species become more complex, 
prompting J.M. Smith (1972) to conclude that it is "difficult to say whether 
evolution as a whole has a direction." 

In terms of the cosmos, it is argued, "time's arrow" is automatically 
indicated by the fact that the galaxies are receding away from each 
other. But there seems to be virtual unanimity that as far as the basics 
of physics are concerned, the "flow" of time is irrelevant and makes no 
sense; fundamental physical laws are completely neutral with regard to 
the direction of time (Mehlberg 1961, 1971, Landsberg 1982, Squires 

1986, Watanabe 1953, 1956, Swinburne 1986, Morris 1983, Mallove 

1987, D'Espagnat 1989, etc.). Modern physics even provides scenarios 
in which time ceases to exist and, in reverse, comes into existence. So 
why is our world asymmetric in time? Why can't it go backward as 
well as forward? This is a paradox, inasmuch as the individual molecu- 
lar dynamics are all reversible. The main point, to which I will return 
later, is that time's arrow reveals itself as complexity develops, in strik- 
ing parallel with the social world. 

The flow of time manifests itself in the context of future and past, and 
they in turn depend on a referent known as the now. With Einstein 
and relativity, it is clear that there is no universal present: we cannot say it 
is "now" throughout the universe. There is no fixed interval at all that is 
independent of the system to which it refers, just as alienation is dependent 
on its context. 

Time is thus robbed of the autonomy and objectivity it enjoyed in the 
Newtonian world. It is definitely more individually delineated, in Einstein's 
revelations, than the absolute and universal monarch it had been. Time 
is relative to specific conditions and varies according to such factors as 
speed and gravitation. But if time has become more "decentralized," it 
has also colonized subjectivity more than ever before. As time and 
alienation have become the rule throughout the world, there is little 
solace in knowing that they are dependent on varying circumstances. The 
relief comes in acting on this understanding; it is the invariance of 
alienation that causes the Newtonian model of independently flowing 
time to hold sway within us, long after its theoretical foundations were 
eliminated by relativity. 

Quantum theory, dealing with the smallest parts of the universe, is 

Time and Its Discontents 


known as the fundamental theory of matter. The core of quantum 
theory follows other fundamental physical theories, like relativity, in 
making no distinction in the direction of time (Coveney and 
Highfield 1991). A basic premise is indeterminism, in which the 
movement of particles at this level is a matter of probabilities. Along 
with such elements as positrons, which can be regarded as electrons 
moving backward in time, and tachyons, faster-than-light particles 
that generate effects and contexts reversing the temporal order (Gribbin 
1979, Tindley 1993), quantum physics has raised fundamental 
questions about time and causality. In the quantum microworld common 
accusal relationships have been discovered that transcend time and put 
into question the very notion of the ordering of events in time. There 
can be "connections and correlations between very distant events in the 
absence of any intermediary force or signal" and which occur 
instantaneously (Zohar 1982, Aspect 1982). That phenomena in 
which action taken now affects the course of events that have already 
happened is an inescapable phenomenon of quantum, or particle physics. 
Gleick (1992) summed up the situation as follows: "With simultaneity 
gone, sequentiality was foundering, causality was under pressure, and 
scientists generally felt themselves free to consider temporal possibilities 
that would have seemed far-fetched a generation before." At least one 
approach in quantum physics has attempted to remove the notion of 
time altogether (.T.G. Taylor 1972); D. Park (1972), for instance, said, 
"I prefer the atemporal representation to the temporal one." 
The bewildering situation in science finds its match in the extremity 
of the social world. Alienation, like time, produces ever greater oddities 
and pressures: the most fundamental questions finally, almost 
necessarily, emerge in both cases. 

St. Augustine's fifth century complaint was that he didn't understand 
what the measurement of time really consisted of. Einstein, admitting 
the inadequacy of his comment, often defined time as "what a clock 
measures." Quantum physics, for its part, posits the inseparability of 
measurer and what is measured. Via a process physicists don't claim 
to understand fully, the act of observation or measurement not only 
reveals a particle's condition but actually determines it (Pagels 1983). 
This has prompted the question, "Is everything — including time — built 
from nothingness by acts of observer-participancy?" Again 


Running on Emptiness 

a striking parallel, for alienation, at every level and from its origin, requires 
exactly such participation, virtually as a matter of definition. 
Time's arrow — irrevocable, one-direction-only time — is the 
monster that has proven itself more terrifying than any physical projec- 
tile. Directionless rime is not time at all, and Cambel (1993) identifies 
time directionality as "a primary characteristic of complex systems." The 
time-reversible behavior of atomic particles is "generally commuted into 
behavior of the system that is irreversible," concluded Schlegel (1961). If 
not rooted in the micro world, where does time come from? Where 
does our time-bound world come from? It is here that we encounter a 
provocative analogy. The small scale world described by physics, 
with its mysterious change into the macro world of complex systems, 
is analogous to the "primitive" social world and the origins of 
division of labor, leading to complex, class-divided society with its 
apparently irreversible "progress" . 

A generally held tenet of physical theory is that the arrow of time is 
dependent on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (e.g. Reichenbach 
1956), which asserts that all systems tend toward ever greater disorder 
or entropy. The past is thus more orderly than the future. Some proponents 
of the Second Law (e.g. Boltzmann 1866) have found in entropic increase 
the very meaning of the past-future distinction. 
This general principle of irreversibility was developed in the 
middle decades of the 19th century, beginning with Carnot in 1824, 
when industrial capitalism itself reached its apparent non-reversible 
point. If evolution was the century's optimistic application of irre- 
versible time, the Second Law of Thermodynamics was its pessimistic 
one. In its original terms, it pictured a universe as an enormous heat 
engine running down, where work became increasingly subject to inef- 
ficiency and disorder. But nature, as Toda (1978) noticed, is not an 
engine, does not work, and is not concerned with "order" or "disor- 
der". The cultural aspect of this theory _ namely, capital's fear for its 
future — is hard to miss. 

One hundred and fifty years later, theoretical physicists realize that the 
Second Law and its supposed explanation of the arrow of time cannot 
be considered a solved problem (Neeman 1982). Many supporters of 
reversible time in nature consider the Second Law too superficial, a 
secondary law not a primary one (e.g. Haken 1988, Penrose 

Time and Its Discontents 


1989). Others find the very concept of entropy ill-defined and prob- 
lematic, and, related to the charge of superficiality, it is argued that the 
phenomena described by the Second Law can be ascribed to particular 
initial conditions and do not represent the workings of a general prin- 
ciple (Davies 1981, Barrow 1991). Furthermore, not every pair of 
events that bear the "afterward" relation the one to the other bear an 
entropic difference. The science of complexity (with a wider scope 
than chaos theory) has discovered that not all systems tend toward 
disorder (Lewin 1992), also contrary to the Second Law. Moreover, 
isolated systems, in which no exchanges with the environment are 
allowed, display the Second Law's irreversible trend; even the universe 
may not be such a closed system. In fact, we don't know whether the 
total entropy of the universe is increasing, decreasing, or remaining 

Despite such aporias and objections, a movement toward an "irre- 
versible physics" based on the Second Law is underway, with quite 
interesting implications. 1977 Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine seems to 
be the most tireless and public advocate of the view that there is an 
innate unidirectional time at all levels of existence. Whereas the funda- 
mentals of every major scientific theory, as noted, are neutral with respect 
to time, Prigogine gives time a primary emphasis in the universe. 
Irreversibility is for him and his like-minded fellow believers an over- 
arching primal axiom. In supposedly nonpartisan science, the question of 
time has clearly become a political matter. 

Prigogine (1985), in a symposium sponsored by Honda and promoting 
such projects as Artificial Intelligence: "Questions such as the origin of 
life, the origin of the universe, or the origin of matter, can no longer be 
discussed without recourse to irreversibility." It is no coincidence that 
non-scientist Alvin Toffler, America's leading cheerleader for a high- 
tech world, provided an enthusiastic forward for one of the basic texts 
of the pro-time campaign, Prigogine and Stenger's Order Out of Chaos 
(1984). Prigogine disciple Ervin Laszlo, in a bid to legitimate and extend 
the dogma of universally irreversible time, asks whether the laws of 
nature are applicable to the human world. He soon answers, in 
effect, his own disingenuous question (1985): "The general irreversibil- 
ity of technological innovation overrides the indeterminacy of individ- 
ual points of bifurcation and drives the proprocesses of history in the 


Running On Emptiness 

observed direction from primitive tribes to modern techno -industrial 
states." How "scientific"! This transposition from the "laws of nature" to 
the social world could hardly be improved on as a description of time, 
division of labor, and the mega-machine crushing the autonomy or 
"reversibility" of human decision. Leggett (1987) expressed this perfectly: 
" So it would seem that the arrow of time which appears in the apparently 
impersonal subject of thermodynamics is intimately related to what we, 
as human agents, can or cannot do." 

It is deliverance from "chaos" which Prigogine and others promise 
the ruling system, using the model of irreversible time. Capital has always 
reigned in fear of entropy or disorder. Resistance, especially resistance to 
work, is the real entropy, which time, history, and progress 
constantly seek to banish. Prigogine and Stenger (1984) wrote: 
"Irreversibility is either true on all levels or none." All or nothing, always 
the ultimate stakes of the game. 

Since civilization subjugated humanity we have had to live with 
the melancholy idea that our highest aspirations are perhaps impossible 
in a world of steadily mounting time. The more that pleasure and 
understanding are deferred, moved out of reach — and this is the 
essence of civilization — the more palpable is the dimension of time. 
Nostalgia for the past, fascination with the idea of time travel, and the 
heated quest for increased longevity are some of the symptoms of time 
sickness, and there seems to be no ready cure. "What does not elapse in 
time is the lapse of time itself," as Merleau-Ponty (1962) realized. 

In addition to the general antipathy at large, however, it is possible to 
point out some recent specifics of opposition. The Society for the 
Retardation of Time was established in 1 990 and has a few hundred 
members in four European countries. Less whimsical than it may sound, 
its members are committed to reversing the contemporary acceleration of 
time in everyday life, toward the aim of being allowed to live more 
satisfying lives. Michael Theunissen's Negative Theology of Time appeared 
in 1991, aimed explicitly at what it sees as the ultimate human enemy. This 
work has engendered a very lively debate in philosophical circles (Penta 
1993), due to its demand for a negative reconsideration of time. 

"Time is the one single movement appropriate to itself in all its 
parts," wrote Merleau-Ponty (1962). Here we see the fullness of alien- 
ation in the separated world of capital. Time is thought of bv us before 

Time and Its Discontents 


its parts; it thus reveals the totality. The crisis of time is the crisis of the 
whole. Its triumph, apparently well established, was in fact never com- 
plete as long as anyone could question the first premises of its being. 

Above Lake Silviplana, Nietzsche found the inspiration for Thus Spake 
Zarathustra. "Six thousand feet above men and time ..." he wrote in 
his journal. But time cannot be transcended by means of a lofty 
contempt for humanity, because overcoming the alienation that it generates 
is not a solitary project. In this sense I prefer Rexroth's (1968) 
formulation: "the only Absolute is the Community of Love with which 
Time ends." 

Can we put an end to time? Its movement can be seen as the 
master and measure of a social existence that has become increasingly 
empty and technicized. Averse to all that is spontaneous and immedi- 
ate, time more and more clearly reveals its bond with alienation. The 
scope of our project of renewal must include the entire length of this 
joint domination. Divided life will be replaced by the possibility of 
living completely and wholly — timelessly — only when we erase the 
primary causes of that division. 



Running OnEmptmess 


A humanities symposium called "Discourse @ Networks 
200" was held at Stanford University over the course of 
several months in 1997. The following talk on April 23 
represents the only dissent to the prevailing high-tech 

John Zerzan: Thanks for coming. I'll be your Luddite this afternoon. 
The token Luddite, so that it falls on me to uphold this unpopular or 
controversial banner. The emphasis will be on breadth more than depth, 
and in rather reified terms, owing to time considerations. But I hope it 
won't disable whatever cogency there might be to these somewhat 
general remarks. 

It seems to me we're in a barren, impoverished, technicized place 
and that these characteristics are interrelated. Technology claims that it 
extends the senses; but this extension, it seems, ends up blunting and 
atrophying the senses, instead of what this promise claims. Technology 
today is offering solutions to everything in every sphere. You can hardly 
think of one for which it doesn't come up with the answer. But it 
would like us to forget that in virtually every case, it has created the 
problem in the first place that it comes round to say that it will tran- 
scend. Just a little more technology. That's what it always says. And I think 
we begin to see the results ever more clearly today. 


The computer cornucopia, as everything becomes wired into the 
computer throughout society, offers variety, the riches of complete access, 
and yet, as Frederick Jameson said, we live in a society that is the most 
standardized in history. 

Let's look at it as a "means and ends" proposition, as in means 
and ends must be equally valid. Technology claims to be neutral, 
merely a tool, its value or meaning completely dependent on how it is 
used. In this way it hides its ends by cloaking its means. If there is no 
way to understand what it is in terms of an essence, inner logic, his- 
torical embeddedness or other dimension, then what we call technol- 
ogy escapes judgment. We generally recognize the ethical precept that 
you can't achieve valid or good ends with deficient or invalid means, 
but how do we gauge that unless we look at the means? If it's some- 
thing we're not supposed to think about in terms of its essential 
being, its foundations, it's impossible. I mean, you can repeat any 
kind of cliche. This is the kind of thing that one hopes is not a cliche 
because the means and ends thesis is a moral value that I think does 
have validity . 

A number of people or cases could be brought up to further illu- 
minate this. For example, Marx early on was concerned with what 
technology is, what production and the means of production are, and 
determined, as many, many people have, that it's at base division of 
labor. And hence it is a vital question how stunting or how negative 
division of labor is. But Marx went on from that banality, which 
doesn't get very much examined, as we know, to very different ques- 
tions, such as which class owns and controls the technology and means 
of production, and how does the dispossessed class, the proletariat, 
seize that technology from the bourgeoisie. This was quite a different 
emphasis from examining and evaluating technology, and represents an 
abandonment of his earlier interest. 

Of course, by that point, Marx certainly felt that technology is a 
positive good. Today the people who say that it's merely a tool, a neutral 
thing, that it's purely a matter of instrumental use of technology, 
really believe that technology is a positive thing. But they want to be a 
little more canny about it, so again, my point is that if you say it's 
neutral, then you avoid testing the truth claim that it's positive. In 
other words, if you say it's negative or positive, you have to look at 


Running On Emptiness 

what it is. You have to get into it. But if you say it's neutral, that has 
worked pretty well at precluding this examination. 

Next, I want to provide a quote that keeps coming back to me, a 
very pregnant quote from a brilliant mathematician — and it's not Ted 
Kaczynski. It's the British mathematician, Alan Turing, and some of 
you, I'm sure, know that he established many of the theoretical foun- 
dations for the computer in the 1930s and '40s. Also, it would be 
worth mentioning that he took his own life in the '50s because of a 
prosecution stemming from the fact that he was gay, somewhat like 
the action against Oscar Wilde about 50 years earlier. Anyway, I mention 
that — and I don't want to belittle the tragic fact that he was gay and 
this was his end because of it — but he took his life by painting an apple 
with cyanide and biting into it, and it makes me think of the forbidden fruit 
of the tree of knowledge and whether he was saying something about 
that, as we know what happened with that. We have work, agriculture, 
misery and technology out of that. And I also wonder, in passing, about 
Apple computers. Why would they use an apple? It's kind of a mystery 
to me. [laughter] 

But anyway, after this digression, the quote that I was trying to get 
to here. In the middle of an article for the journal Mind in 1950, he 
said, "I believe that at the end of the century, the use of words in 
general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be 
able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contra- 
dicted." Now, what I think is of a lot of interest here is that he doesn't 
say that by the end of the century we'll have computing machines 
(they were still called computing machines at that time) that have 
advanced so far that people won't have any trouble understanding, 
now, that machines think. He says, "... the use of words in general 
educated opinion will have altered so much. " 

Now, I'm giving a reading of this which is probably different from 
what lie had in mind, but when you think about it, this has to do with 
this question of the interrelationship of society and technology. I think 
he was quite right; again, not because artificial intelligence — it wasn't 
called that back then, of course — had advanced so far. Actually, it hasn't 
made very good on its ambitious claims, as I understand it. But some 
people now entertain that notion very seriously. In fact, there's even a 
small but considerable literature on whether machines feel and 

Against Technology 


at what point machines live. And that isn't because Artificial Intelli- 
gence has gone very far, it seems to me. In the early '80s, there was an 
awful lot of talk about "just around the corner," and I'm not an expert 
on AI, but I don't think it has gone very far. It plays a pretty good game 
of chess, I guess, but I don't think it's anywhere near these other 
achievements, or levels. 

I think what explains the change in perception about computers is 
the deformation caused by the massive amount of alienation that has 
happened in the past 50 years or so. That's why some, and I hope not 
many, hold to this point about computers living. 

In terms of what they are capable of, it seems to me, when you 
have the distance narrowing between humans and machines in the 
sense that if we are becoming more machine-like, it's easier to see the 
machine as more human-like. I don't want to be overly dramatic about 
it, but I think people more and more wonder, is this living or are we 
just going through the motions? What's happening? Is everything 
being leached out of life? Is the whole texture and values and every- 
thing kind of draining away? Well, that would take many other lec- 
tures, but it's not so much the actual advance of the technology. If 
machines can be human, humans can be machines. The truly scary 
point is the narrowing of the distance between the two. 

Another quotation to similarly mark this descent, if you will, is a 
short one from a computer communications expert, J.C.R. Licklider. 
In 1968 he said, "In the future, we'll be able to communicate more 
effectively through a machine than face-to-face." If that isn't estrange- 
ment, I don't know what is. At the same time, one striking aspect in 
terms of cultural development is that the concept of alienation is dis- 
appearing, has almost disappeared. If you look at the indices of books 
in the last, say, 20 years, it isn't there any more. It has become so 
banal, I guess, what's the point of talking about it? 

I was reading a recent review on another subject by the political 
theorist, Anthony Giddens, I think it's Sir Anthony Giddens, actually. 
He found it remarkable that "capitalism has disappeared as an object 
of study, just when it has removed any alternative to itself." One might 
think, what else is there to study in the absence of any other system? 
But no one talks about it. It's just a given. It's another commonplace 
that is apparently just accepted and not scrutinized. 


Running On Emptiness 

And, of course, capital is increasingly technologized. A kind of 
obvious point. The people who think that it's about surfing the Net 
and exchanging e-mail with your cousin in Idaho or something, obvi- 
ously neglect the fact that the movement of capital is the computer's 
basic function. The computer is there for faster transactions, the faster 
movement of commodities and so on. That shouldn't even have to be 
pointed out. 

So anyway, back to the theme of how the whole field or ground- 
work moves and our perception of technology and the values we attach 
to it change, usually pretty imperceptibly. Freud said that the fullness 
of civilization will mean universal neurosis. And that sounds kind of 
too sanguine, when you think about it. I'm very disturbed by what I 

I live in Oregon, where the rate of suicide among 15- to 19-year 
olds has increased 600% since 1961.1 find it hard to see this as other 
than youth getting to the threshold of adulthood and society and 
looking out, and what do they see? They see this bereft place. I'm not 
saying they consciously go through that sort of formulation, but some 
kind of assessment takes place, and some just opt out. 

A study of several of the most developed countries is showing that 
the rate of serious depression doubles about every ten years. So I guess 
that means if there aren't enough people on anti-depressants right now, 
just to get through the day, we'll all be taking them before long. You 
can just extrapolate from this chilling fact. If you look for a reason why 
that won't keep going, what would that be without a pretty total 

And many other things. The turn away from literacy. That's a pretty 
basic thing that is somewhat baffling, but it isn't baffling if you think 
that people are viscerally turning away from what doesn't have meaning 
anymore. The outbursts of multiple homicides. That used to be 
unheard of, even in this violent country, just a few decades ago. Now 
it's spreading to all the other countries. You can hardly pick up the 
paper without seeing some horrendous thing in McDonald's or at a 
school or someplace in Scotland or New Zealand, as well as LA. or 
wherever in the U.S. 

Rancho Santa Fe. You probably remember this quote from the 
news. It's from a woman who was part of the Heaven's Gate group 

Against Technology 


there. "Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't care. I've been here 31 years, and 
there's nothing here for me." I think that speaks for quite a lot of 
people who are surveying the emptiness, not just cult members. 

So we're seeing the crisis of inner nature, the prospect of complete 
dehumanization, linking up with the crisis of outer nature, which is 
obviously ecological catastrophe. And I won't bore you with the latter; 
everybody here knows all its features, the accelerating extinction of 
species, etc. etc. Up in Oregon, for example, the natural, original 
forest is virtually one hundred percent gone; the salmon are on the verge 
of extinction. Everybody knows this. And it's so greatly urged along by 
the movement of technology and all that is involved there. 

Marvin Minsky — I think this was in the early '80s — said that the 
brain is a three-pound computer made of meat. He's one of the 
leading AI people. And we have all the rest. We have Virtual Reality. 
People will be flocking to that, just to try to get away from an objec- 
tive social existence that is not too much to look at or deal with. The 
cloning of humans, obviously, is just a matter of probably months 
away. Fresh horrors all the time. 

Education. Get the kids linked up when they're five or so to the 
computer. They call it "knowledge production." And that's the best 
thing you could say about it. 

I want to read one quote here from Hans Moravec from Carnegie- 
Mellon, who is a contributor to the periodical Extropy. He says, "The 
final frontier will be urbanized ultimately into an arena where every 
bit of activity is a meaningful computation. The inhabited portion of 
the universe will be transformed into a cyberspace. We might then be 
tempted to replace some of our innermost mental processes with more 
cyberspace-appropriate programs purchased from artificial intelligence 
and so, bit by bit, transform ourselves into something much like it. 
Ultimately, our thinking procedures could be totally liberated from 
any traces of our original body, indeed of any body." I don't think that 
requires any comment. 

But, of course, there have been contrary voices. There have been 
analysis by people who been pretty worried about the whole develop- 
ment. One of the best is Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of 
Enlightenment, written in the '40s. If technology is not neutral, they 
argue very forcefully, reason isn't a neutral thing either, when you 


Running On Emptiness 

think about it. They raise a critique of what they call "instrumental reason," 
that reason, under the sign of civilization and technology, is fundamentally 
biased toward distancing and control. I'm not going to try to sum up 
the whole thing in a few words, but one of the memorable parts of this 
was their look at Odysseus from the Odyssey, from Homer, one of the basic 
texts of European civilization, where Odysseus is trying to sail past the 
sirens. Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrate that this depicts at a very 
early point the tension between the sensuous, Eros, pre -history, pre- 
technology, and the project of going past that and doing something else. 
Odysseus has his oarsmen tie him to the mast, and stuff their own ears 
with wax, so he won't be tempted by pleasure and lie can get through to the 
repressive, non-sensuous life of civilization and technology. 

Of course, there are many other markers of estrangement. 
Descartes, 350 years ago: "We have to become the masters and posses- 
sors of nature." But what I think is also worth pointing out in a cri- 
tique like Horkheimer and Adorno's and many others, is that they feel 
that they have to add the idea that, well, after all, if nature isn't 
subdued, that if society doesn't subdue nature, society always will be 
subjected to nature and, in effect, there probably won't be any society. 
So they always put that caveat, that qualification, which is to their 
credit for honesty; but it puts a brake on the implications of their cri- 
tique. It makes it less a black-and-white thing, obviously, because, well, 
we can't really get away from domination of nature, and that's what the 
whole thing is based on, our very existence. We can criticize the tech- 
nological life, but where would we be without it? 

But something that I think has very, very enormous implications 
has happened in the last 20 or 30 years, and I don't think it has yet got 
out very much. There has been a wholesale revision in scholarly ideas 
of what life outside of civilization really was. One of the basic 
ideological foundations for civilization, for religion, the state, police, 
armies, everything else, is that you've got a pretty bloodthirsty, awful, 
subhuman condition before civilization. It has to be tamed and tutored 
and so on. It's Hobbes. It's that famous idea that the pre-civilized life 
was nasty, brutish and short, and so to rescue or enable humanity away 
from fear and superstition, from this horrible condition into the light 
of civilization, you have to do that. You have to have what Freud called 

Against Technology 


the "forcible renunciation of instinctual freedom. " You just have to. 
That's the price. 

Anyway, that turns out to be completely wrong. Certainly, there are 
disagreements about some of the parts of the new paradigm, some of 
the details, and I think most of the literature doesn't draw out its 
radical implications. But since about the early 70s, we have a starkly 
different picture of what life was like in the two million or so years before 
civilization, a period that ended about 10,000 years ago, almost no time 
at all. 

Prehistory is now characterized more by intelligence, egalitarianism 
and sharing, leisure time, a great degree of sexual equality, robusticity 
and health, with no evidence at all of organized violence. I mean, 
that's just staggering. It's virtually a wholesale revision. We're still 
living, of course, with the cartoonish images, the caveman pulling the 
woman into the cave, Neanderthal meaning somebody who is a com- 
plete brute and subhuman, and so on. But the real picture has been 
wholly revised. 

I won't take time here to go into the evidence and the arguments, 
but I want to mention just a couple of them. For example, how do we 
know about sharing? That sounds like some kind of '60s assertion, right? 
But it's simple things like examining the evidence around hearths, around 
fire sites, probably in impermanent settlements. If you found around one 
fire you've got all the goodies there, well, that looks like the chief and 
everybody else has little or nothing. But if everybody has about exactly 
the same amount of stuff, it argues for a condition of equality. Thomas 
Wynn has helped us see prehistoric intelligence in a different light. He 
drew on Piaget quite a bit in terms of what is congealed and/or concealed 
in even a simple stone tool, and he kind of deconstructed it to bring out, I 
think, about eight different stages and steps and aspects to what it takes to 
actually take something like that and make a tool out of it. And he 
concluded — and this hasn't been refuted that I see anywhere in the literature 

that at least a million years ago, Homo had an intelligence equal to 

that of the adult human today. So one would have said, well, okay, even if 
it was kind of rosy prior to culture, our distant ancestors were just so dim 
they couldn't figure out how to establish agriculture, hierarchy and all the 
other wonderful things. But if that's not true, then you start looking at 
the whole picture quite differently . 


Running On Emptiness 

One other thing: the book Stone Age Economics by Marshall 
Sahlins came out in 1972, and a lot of his argument is based on exist- 
ing hunter-gatherer peoples, on just simply seeing how much they worked. 
Which was very, very little. By the way, he was the chairman of the 
anthropology department at the University of Michigan, so we're 
not talking about some crank, or a marginal figure. If you look at the 
literature in anthropology and archaeology, you see quite amazing 
corrections to what we had thought. It makes you start to think, I 
guess perhaps civilization wasn't such a good idea. The question that 
was always asked was why did it take humanity so long to figure out 
agriculture? I mean, they just thought of it yesterday, relatively, less than 
10,000 years ago. 

Now the question is, why did they ever take up agriculture? Which is 
really the question of why did they ever take up civilization? Why did 
they ever start our division-of-labor-based technology? If we once had 
a technology, if you want to call it that, based on pretty much zero 
division of labor, for me that has pretty amazing implications and 
makes me think that somehow it's possible to get back there in some 
way or another. We might be able to reconnect to a higher condition, one 
that sounds to me like a state of nearness to reality, of wholeness. 

I'm getting pretty close to the end here. I want to mention Hei- 
degger. Heidegger, of course, is thought of by many as one of the deepest 
or most original thinkers of the century. He felt that technology is the 
end of philosophy, and that's based on his view that as technology 
encompasses more and more of society, everything becomes grist for it 
and grist for production, even thinking. It loses its separateness, its 
quality of being apart from that. His point is worth mentioning just in 

And now I get to one of my favorite topics, postmodernism, 
which I think is exactly what Heidegger would have had in mind if 
he had stuck around long enough to see it. I think that here we have 
a rather complete abdication of reason with postmodernism in so 
many ways, and it's so pervasive, and so many people don't seem to 
know what it is. Though we are completely immersed in it, few even 
now seem to have a grasp of it. Perhaps this, in its way, is similar to 
the other banalities I referred to earlier. Namely, that which has over- 

Against Technology 


powered what is alien to it is simply accepted and rarely analyzed. 

So I started having to do some homework, and I've done some writing 
on it since, and one of the fundamental things — and sorry, for people 
who already know this — comes from Lyotard in the 70s, in a book 
called The Postmodern Condition. He held that postmodernism is 
fundamentally "antipathy to meta-narratives, "meaning it's a refusal of 
totality, of the overview, of the arrogant idea that we can have a grasp 
of the whole. It's based on the idea that the totality is totalitarian. To 
try to think that you can get some sense of the whole thing, that's no 
good. And I think a lot of it, by the way, is a reaction against 
Marxism, which held sway for so long in France among the intelli- 
gentsia; I think there was an overreaction because of that. 

So you have an anti-totality outlook and an anti-coherence outlook, 
even, because that too is suspect and even thought to be a nasty thing. 
After all, and here's the one thing in which he probably concurred with 
Horkheimer and Adorno, what has Enlightenment thinking brought us? 
What has modernist, overview, totality -oriented thinking got us? Well, 
you know, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, neutron bombs. You don't have to 
defend those things, though, to get a sense that maybe postmodernism 
is throwing everything away and has no defenses against, for one thing, an 
onrushing technology. 

Similarly, postmodernists are against the idea of origins. They feel 
that the idea of origins is a false one (these are all big generalizations; there 
are probably some with slightly different emphases). We are in culture. 
We have always been in culture. We always will be in culture. So we 
can't see outside of culture. So something like nature versus Culture is just 
a false notion. Thus they deny that, too, and further inhibit 
understanding the present. You can't go back to any origins or beginning 
points of causation or development. Relatedly, history is a fairly 
arbitrary fiction; one version is about as good as another. 

There's also emphasis on the fragmentary, pluralism, diversity, the 
random. But I ask you, where is the random? Where is the diversity? 
Where is it? To me, the world is getting so stark and monolithic in 
terms of the general movement of things and what the meaning of this 
movement is. To play around with this emphasis on margins and sur- 
faces, this attitude that you can't get below the surface, to me is ethical 
and intellectual cowardice. "Truth and meaning?" Well, that's just non- 


Running On Emptiness 

sense. That's passe. Always put terms like those in quotes. You see pretty 
much everything in quotes when you look at postmodern writing. So 
it's a lot of irony, of course. Irony verging on cynicism is the thing you 
can now see everywhere in popular culture. In terms of postmodernism, 
that's close to the whole thing. Everything is shifting. It's just so splin- 
tered and everything. I don't quite get how it is possible to evade what 
is going on vis-a-vis the individual and what is left of nature. 

I think postmodernism is a great accomplice to technology, and 
often explicitly so, often as an explicit embrace of it. Lyotard also said 
that "data banks are the new nature." Of course, if he rules out origins, 
how does he know what nature is? They have their own set of really 
totality -type assumptions, but they don't cop to it. It's only the old- 
fashioned people, I guess, who don't want to play that game. 

One more quote: this is from a Professor Escobar in the June 1994 
issue of Current Anthropology. It really has a lot to do with how 
technology defines what is the norm and what is ruled out. He said, 
" Technological innovations in dominant world views generally transform 
each other so as to legitimate and naturalize the technologies of the time. 
Nature and society come to be explained in ways that reinforce the 
technological imperatives of the day." I think that's really well put. 

So I started with one basic fallacy — 1 think it's a basic fallacy — about 
technology. That is the point that technology is not neutral, not a 
discrete tool somehow separate from its social placement or develop- 
ment as a part of society. I think the other one, or another one, is that 
okay, you can talk all you want about technology, but it's here, it's 
inexorable, and what's the point of talking about it? Well, it isn't 
inevitable. It's only inevitable if we don't do anything about it. If we 
just go along, then it is inevitable. I think that's the obvious challenge. 
The unimaginable will happen. It's already happening. And if we have 
a future it will be because we stand up to it and have a different vision 
and think about dismantling it. 

I also think, by the way, that if we have a future, we may have a 
different idea about who the real criminals are, and who, like John Brown 
perhaps, the Unabomber might be seen to resemble. Who, like John 
Brown, tried to save us. 




From the Latin re, or thing, reification is essentially thingification. Theodor 
Adorno, among others, asserted that society and consciousness have 
become almost completely reified. Through this process, human practices 
and relations come to be seen as external objects. What is living ends 
up treated as a non-living thing or abstraction, and this turn of events is 
experienced as natural, normal, unchallenged. 

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss provides an image of this 
reifying process, in terms of the atrophy of European civilization: "... 
like some aging animal whose thickening hide has formed an imper- 
ishable crust around its body and, by no longer allowing the skin to 
breathe, is hastening the aging process.'" The loss of meaning, imme- 
diacy, and spiritual vibrancy in Western civilization is a mapr theme 
in the works of Max Weber, and also bears on the reification of 
modern life. That this failing of life and enchantment seems 
somehow inevitable and unchangeable, largely just taken for granted, is 
as important as the reified outcome, and is inseparable from it. 

How did human activities and connections become separate from 
their subjects and take on a thing-like "life" of their own? And given 
the evident waning of belief in society's institutions and categories, 
what holds the "things" in thing-ified society together? 

Terms like reification and alienation, in a world more and more 


Running On Emptiness 

comprised of the starkest forms of estrangement, are no longer to be 
found, in the literature that supposedly deals with this world. Those 
who claim to have no ideology are so often the most constrained and 
defined by the prevailing ideology they cannot see, and it is possible 
that the highest degree of alienation is reached where it no longer 
enters consciousness. 

Reification became a widely employed term as defined by the marxist 
Georg Lukacs: namely, a form of alienation issuing from the commodity 
fetishism of modern market relations. Social conditions and the plight 
of the individual have become mysterious and impenetrable as a 
function of what we now commonly refer to as consumerist capitalism. We 
are crushed and blinded by the reifying force of the stage of capital that 
began in the 20th century. 

I think, however, that it may be useful to re-cast reification so as to 
establish a much deeper meaning and dynamic. The merely and 
directly human is in fact being drained away as surely as nature itself 
has been tamed into an object. In the frozen universe of commodities, 
the reign of things over life is obvious, and that coldness that Adorno 
saw as the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity is plumbing new 

But if reification is the central mechanism whereby the commod- 
ity form permeates the entire culture, it is also much more than that. 
Kant knew the term, and it was Hegel, soon after, who made major 
use of it (and objectification, its rough equivalent). He discovered a radical 
lack of being at the heart of the subject; it is here that we may fruitfully 

The world presents itself to us — and we re-present it. Why the 
need to do that? Do we know what symbols really symbolize? Is truth 
that which must be possessed, not re -presented? Signs are basically signals, 
that is, correlative; but symbols are substitutive. 

As Husserl put it, " The symbol exists effectively at the point where 
it introduced something more than life. . . ""Reification may be an 
unavoidable corollary or by-product of symbolization itself. 

At a minimum, there seem to be reified fundamentals in all net- 
works of domination. Calendars and clocks formalize and further reify 
time, which was likely the first reification of all. The divided social 
structure is a reified world largely because it is a symbolic structure of 

That Thing We Do 


roles and images, not persons. Power crystallizes into networks of 
domination and hierarchy as reification enters the equation very early 
on. In the current productionist world, extreme division of labor ful- 
fills its original meaning. Made increasingly passive and meaningless, 
we endlessly reify ourselves. Our mounting impoverishment approaches 
the condition in which we are mere things. 

Reification permeates postmodern culture, in which only appear- 
ances change, and appear alive. The dreadfulness of our postmodernity 
can be seen as a destination of the history of philosophy, and a destina- 
tion of a good deal more than just philosophy. History qua history 
begins as loss of integrity, immersion in an external trajectory that 
tears the self into parts. The denial of human choice and effective agency is 
as old as division of labor; only its drastic development or fullness is new. 

About 250 years ago the German romantic Novalis complained 
that "the meaning of life has been lost.'" Widespread questioning of 
the meaning of life only began at about this time, just as industrialism 
made its very first inroads.' From this point on, an erosion of meaning 
has quickly accelerated, reminding us that the substitutive function of 
symbolization is also prosthetic. The replacement of the living by the 
artificial, like technology, involves a thingification. Reification is always, at 
least in part, a techno-imperative. 

Technology is "the knack of so arranging the world that we need not 
experience it.'" We are expected to deny what is living and natural within us 
in order to acquiesce in the domination of non-human nature. Technology 
has unmistakably become the great vehicle of reification. Not forgetting that 
it is embedded in and embodies an ever-expanding, global field of capital, 
reification subordinates us to our own objectified creations. ("Things are in 
the saddle and ride mankind," observed Emerson in the mid-19th century.) 
Nor is this a recent turn of events; rather, it reflects the master code of 
culture, ab origino. The separation from nature, and its ensuing 
pacification and manipulation, make one ask, is the individual vanishing? 
Has culture itself set this in motion? How has it come to pass that a 
formulation as reified as "children are our most precious resource" does 
not seem repugnant to everyone? 

We are captives of so much that is not only instrumental, fodder 
for the functioning of other manipulable things, but also ever more 


Running On Emptiness 

simulated. We are exiles from immediacy, in a fading and flattening 
landscape where thought struggles to unlearn its alienated condition- 
ing. Merleau-Ponty failed in his quest, but at least aimed at finding a 
primordial ontology of vision prior to the split between subject and 
object. It is division of labor and the resulting conceptual forms of thought 
that go unchallenged, delaying discovery of reification and reified 

It is, after all, our whole way of knowing that has been so 
deformed and diminished, and that must be understood as such. 
"Intelligence" is now an externality to be measured, equated to profi- 
ciency in manipulating symbols. Philosophy has become the highly 
elaborate rationalization of reifications. And even more generally, being 
itself is constituted as experience and representation, as subject and object. 
These outcomes must be criticized as fundamentally as possible. 

The active, living element in cognition must be uncovered, beneath 
the reifications that mask it. Cognition, despite contemporary ortho- 
doxy, is not computation. The philosopher Ryle glimpsed that a form of 
knowledge that does not rely on symbolic representation might be the 
basic one.' Our notions of reality are the products of an artificially 
constructed symbol system, whose components have hardened into 
reifications or objectifications over time, as division of labor coalesced into 
domination of nature and domestication of the individual. 

Thought capable of producing culture and civilization is distanc- 
ing, non-sensuous. It abstracts from the subject and becomes an inde- 
pendent object. It's telling that sensations are much more resistant to 
reification than are mental images. Platonic discourse is a prime example of 
thinking that proceeds at the expense of the senses, in its radical split 
between perceptions and conceptions. Adorno draws attention to the 
healthier variant by his observation that in Walter Benjamin's writings 
"thought presses close to the object, as if through touching, smelling, 
tasting, it wanted to transform itself."' And Le Roy is probably very 
close to the mark with "we resign ourselves to conception only for want 
of perception."' Historically determined in the deepest sense, the 
reification aspect of thought is a further cognitive "fall from grace." 

Husserl and others figured symbolic representation as originally 
designed to be only a temporary supplement to authentic expression. 

That Thing We Do 


Reification enters the picture in a somewhat parallel fashion, as repre- 
sentation passes from the status of a noun used for specific purposes to 
that of an object. Whether or not these descriptive theses are adequate, 
it seems at least evident that an ineluctable gap exists between the 
concept's abstraction and the richness of the web or phenomena. To 
the point here is Heidegger's conclusion that authentic thinking is non- 
conceptual," a kind of "reverential listening.'" 

Always of the utmost relevance is the violence that a steadily 
encroaching technological ethos perpetrates against lived experience. 
Gilbert Germain has understood how the ethos forcefully promotes a 
"forgetfulness of the linkage between reflective thought and the direct 
perceptual experience of the world from which it arises and to which it 
ought to return." 10 Engels noted in passing that "human reason has 
developed in accordance with man's alteration of nature,"" a mild way 
of referring to the close connection between objectifying, instrumen- 
talizing reason and progressive reification. 

In any case, the thought of civilization has worked to reduce the 
abundance that yet manages to surround us. Culture is a screen through 
which our perceptions, ideas, and feelings are filtered and domesticated. 
According to Jean-Luc Nancy, the main thing representational thought 
represents is its limit. 12 Heidegger and Wittgenstein, possibly the most 
original of 20th century thinkers, ended up disclaiming philosophy along 
these lines. 

The reified life-world progressively removes what questions it. The 
literature on society raises ever fewer basic questions about society, and 
the suffering of the individual is now rarely related to even this 
unquestioned society. Emotional desolation is seen as almost entirely a 
matter of freely -occurring "natural" brain or chemical abnormalities, having 
nothing to do with the destructive context the individual is generally left to 
blindly endure in a drugged condition. 

On a more abstract level, reification can be neutralized by conflat- 
ing it with obj edification, which is defined in a way that places it beyond 
questioning. Objectification in this sense is taken to mean an awareness of 
the existence of subjects and objects, and the fact of the self as both 
subject and object. Hegel, in this vein, referred to it as the very essence 
of the subject, without which there can be no development. Adorno saw 
some reification as a necessary element in the neces- 


Running On Emptiness 

sary process of human objectification. As he became more pessimistic 
about the realization of a de -reified society, Adorno used reification 
and objectification as synonyms," completing a demoralized retreat 
from fully calling either term into question. 

I think it may be instructive to accept the two terms as synony- 
mous, not to end up accepting them both but to entertain the notion 
of exploring basic alienation. All objectification requires an alienation 
of subject from object, which is fundamental, it would seem, to the 
goal of reconciling them. How did we get to this horrendous present, 
definable as a condition in which the reified subject and the reified 
object mutually entail one another? How is it that, as William Desmond 
put it, "the intimacy of being is dissolved in the modern antithesis of 
subject and object?" 

As the world is shaped via objectification, so is the subject: the world 
as a field of objects open to manipulation. Objectification, as the 
basis for the domination of nature as external, alien other, presents 
itself. Clearer still is the use of the term by Marx and Lukacs as the natural 
means by which humans master the world. 

The shift from objects to objectification, from reality to construc- 
tions of reality, is also the shift to domination and mystification. 
Objectification is the take-off point for culture, in that it is makes 
domestication possible. It reaches its full potential with the onset of division 
of labor; the exchange principle itself moves on the level of objectification. 
Similarly, none of the institutions of divided society are powerful or 
determinative without a reified element. 

The philosopher Croce considered it sheer rhetoric to speak of a 
beautiful river or flower; to him, nature was stupid compared to art. 
This elevation of the cultural is possible only through objectification. 
The works of Kafka, on the other hand, portray the outcome of objec- 
tifying cultural logic, with their striking illustration of a reified land- 
scape that crushes the subject. 

Representation and production are the foundations of reification, 
which cements and extends their empire. Reification's ultimately distancing, 
domesticating orientation decrees the growing separation between reduced, 
rigidified subjects and an equally objectified field of experience. As the 
Siruationist line goes, today the eye sees only things and their prices. The 
genesis of this outlook is vastly older than their 

That Thing We Do 


formulation denotes; the project of de -objectification can draw strength 
from the human condition that obtained before reification developed. A 
"future primitive" is called for, where a living involvement with the 
world, and fluid, intimate participation in nature will replace the 
thingified reign of symbolic civilization. 

The very first symptom of alienated life is the very gradual appear- 
ance of time. The first reification and increasingly the quintessential 
one, time is virtually synonymous with alienation. We are now so per- 
vasively ruled and regulated by this "it" which of course has no con- 
crete existence that thinking of a pre-civilized, timeless epoch is extremely 

Time is the symptom of symptoms to come. The relationship of 
subject and object must have been radically different before temporal 
distance advanced into the psyche. It has come to stand over us as an 
external thing — predecessor to work and the commodity, separate and 
dominating as described by Marx. This de-presentizing force implies 
that de-reification would mean a return to the eternal present wherein 
we lived before we entered the pull of history. 

E.M. Cioran asks, "How can you help resenting the absurdity of 
time, its march into the future, and all the nonsense about evolution 
and progress? Why go forward, why live in time."" Walter Benjamin's 
plea for shattering the reified continuity of history was somewhat simi- 
larly based on his yearning for a wholeness or unity of experience. At 
some point, the moment itself matters and does not rely on other moments 
"in time." 

It was of course the clock that completed the reification, by dissoci- 
ating time from human events and natural processes. Time by now was 
fully exterior to life and incarnated in the first fully mechanized device. 
In the 15th century Giovanni Tortelli wrote that the clock "seems to be 
alive, since it moves of its own accord." " Time had come to measure its 
contents, no longer contents measuring time. We so often say we "don't 
have time," but it is the basic reification, time, that has us. 

Fragmented life cannot become the norm without the primary 
victory of time. The complexity, particularity, and diversity of all living 
creatures cannot be lost to the standardizing realm of the quantitative 
without this key objectification. 

The question of the origin of reification is a compelling one that 


Running On Emptiness 

has rarely been pursued deeply enough. A common error has been to 
confuse intelligence with culture; namely, the absence of culture is seen 
as equivalent to the absence of intelligence. This confusion is further 
compounded when reification is seen as inherent to the nature of 
mental functioning. From Thomas Wynn" and others we now know 
that pre -historic humans were our equals in intelligence. If culture is 
impossible without obj edification, it does not follow that either is 
inevitable, or desirable. 

As suspicious as Adorno was of the idea of origins, he conceded 
that human conduct originally involved no objectification.18 Husserl 
was similarly able to refer to the primordial oneness of all conscious- 
ness prior to its dissociation." 

Bringing this condition of life into focus has proven elusive at best. 
Levi-Strauss began his anthropological work with such a quest in mind: "I 
had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression. That of 
the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find was human 
beings. " " In other words, he was really still looking for symbolic culture, 
and seemed ill-equipped to ponder the meaning of its absence. Herbert 
Marcuse wanted human history to conform to nature as a subject-object 
harmony, but he knew that "history is the negation of nature. "21 The 
postmodern outlook positively celebrates the reifying presence of history 
and culture by denying the possibility that a pre-objectificational state ever 
existed. Having surrendered to representation — and every other basic 
given of past, present, and future barrenness — the postmodernists could 
scarcely be expected to explore the genesis of reification. 

If not the original reification, language is the most consequential, 
as cornerstone of representational culture. Language is the reification 
of communication, a paradigmatic move that establishes every other 
mental separation. The philosopher W.V. Quine's variation on this is 
that reification arrives with the pronoun." 

"In the beginning was the Word ..." the beginning of all this, which 
is killing us by limiting existence to many things. Corollary of 
symbolization, reification is a sclerosis that chokes off what is living, 
open, natural. In place of being stands the symbol. If it is impossible for 
us to coincide with our being, Sartre argues in Being and Nothingness, 
then the symbolic is the measure of that non-coincidence. Reification seals 
the deal, and language is its universal currency. 

That Thing We Do 


An exhausted symbolic mediation with less and less to say prevails 
in a world where that mediation is now seen as the central, even defin- 
ing fact of life. In an existence without vibrancy or meaning, nothing 
is left but language. The relation of language to reality has dominated 
20th century philosophy. Wittgenstein, for example, was convinced that 
the foundation of language and of linguistic meaning is the very basis of 

This "linguistic turn" appears even more profound if we consider 
the entire species-sense of language, including its original impact as a 
radical departure. Language has been fundamental to our obligation to 
objectify ourselves, in a milieu that is increasingly not our own. Thus 
it is absurd for Heidegger to say that the truth about language is that it 
refuses to be objectified. The reificational act of language impoverishes 
existence by creating a universe of meaning sufficient unto itself. The 
ultimate "sufficient unto itself" is the concept "God," and its ultimate 
description is, revealingly, "I am Who I am" (Exodus 4: 14). We have 
come to regard the separate, self-enclosed nature of objectification as 
the highest quality, evidently, rather than as the debasement of the "merely" 
contingent, relational, connected. 

It has been recognized for some time that thought is not language- 
dependent and that language limits the possibilities of thought." 
Gottlob Frege wondered if to think in a non-reified way is possible, 
how it could be possible to explain how thinking can ever be reified. 
The answer was not to be found in his chosen field of formal logic. 

In fact, language does proceed as a thing external to the subject, 
and molds our cognitive processes. Classic psychoanalytic theory 
ignored language, but Melanie Klein discussed symbolization as a 
precipitant of anxiety. To translate Klein's insight into cultural terms, 
anxiety about erosion of a non-objectified life-world provokes lan- 
guage. We experience "the urge to thrust against language,"" when we 
feel that we have given up our voices, and are left only with language. 
The enormity of this loss is suggested in C.S. Peirce's definition of 
the self as mainly a consistency of symbolization; "my language," 
conversely, "is the sum total of my self," he concluded." Given this 
kind of reduction, is not difficult to agree with Lacan that induction 
into the symbolic world generates a persistent yearning that arises from 
one's absence from the real world. "The speechform 


Running On Emptiness 

is a mere surrogate," wrote Joyce in Finnegan's Wake. 

Language refutes every appeal to immediacy by dishonoring the 
unique and immobilizing the mobile. Its elements are independent 
entities from the consciousness that utters them, which in turn weigh 
down that consciousness. According to Quine, this reification plays a 
part in creating a "structured system of the world," by closing up the 
"loose ends of raw experience."" Quine does not recognize the limit- 
ing aspects of this project. In his incomplete final work, the phenome- 
nologist Merleau-Ponty began to explore how language diminishes an 
original richness, how it actually works against perception. 

Language, as a separate medium, does indeed facilitate a structured 
system, based on itself, that deals with anarchic "loose ends" of experience. 
It accomplishes this, basically in the service of division of labor, by 
avoiding the here and now of experience. "Seeing is forgetting the name 
of the thing one sees," an anti-reification statement by Paul Valery" 
suggests how words get in the way of direct apprehension. The 
Murngin of northern Australia saw name-giving as a kind of death, the 
loss of an original wholeness." A pivotal moment of reification 
occurred when we succumbed to names and became inscribed in letters. 
It is perhaps when we most need to express ourselves, fully and 
completely, that language most clearly reveals its reductive and inartic- 
ulate nature. 

Language itself corrupts, as Rousseau claimed in his famous dream 
of a community stripped of it. The path beyond the claims of reifica- 
tion involves breaking representation's age-old spell. 

Another basic avenue of reification is ritual, which originated as a 
means to instill conceptual and social order. Ritual is an objectified schema 
of action, involving symbolic behavior that is standardized and repetitive. It 
is the first fetishizing of culture, and points decisively toward 
domestication. Concerning the latter, ritual can be seen as the original 
model of calculability of production. Along these lines, Georges 
Condominas challenged the distinction that is ordinarily made between 
ritual and agriculture. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia led him to see 
ritual as an integral component of the technology of traditional 
farming. " 

Mircea Eliade has described religious rites as real only to the extent 
that they imitate or symbolically repeat some kind of archetypal event, 

That Thing We Do 


adding that participation is felt to be genuine only to the extent of this 
identification; that is, only to the extent that the partic'pant ceases to be 
himself or herself. " Thus the repetitive ritual act is very closely related to 
the depersonalizing, devaluing essence of division of labor, and at the 
same time approaches a virtual definition of the reifying process itself. To 
lose oneself in fealty to an earlier, frozen event or moment: to become 
reified, a thing that owes its supposed authenticity to some prior 

Religion, like the rest of culture, springs from the false notion of the 
necessity for combat against the forces of nature. The powers of nature are 
reified, along with those of their religious or mythological counterparts. 
From animism to deism, the divine develops against a natural world 
depicted as increasingly threatening and chaotic. J.G. Frazier saw religious 
and magical phenomena as "the conscious conversion of what had hitherto 
been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances. " " To deify is to 
reify, and a November 1997 discovery by archaeologist Juan Vadeum 
helps us situate the domesticating context of this movement. In Chiapas, 
Mexico, Vadeum found four Mayan stone carvings that represent original 
" grandfathers" of wisdom and power. 

Significantly, these figures of seminal importance to Mayan religion 
and cosmology symbolize War, Agriculture, Trade, and Tribute. " As 
Feuerbach noted, every important stage in the history of human civilization 
begins with religion," and religion serves civilization both substantively 
and formally. In its formal aspect, the reify ing nature of religion is the 
most potent contribution of all. 

Art is the other early objectification of culture, which is what makes it 
into a separate activity and gives it reality. Art is also a quasi -Utopian 
promise of happiness, always broken. The betrayal resides largely in the 
reification. "To be a work of art means to set up a world," according to 
Heidegger," but this counter-world is powerless against the rest of the 
objectified world of which it remains a part. 

Georg Simmel described the triumph of form over life, the danger 
posed to individuality by the surrender to form. The dualism of form 
and content is the blueprint for reification itself, and partakes in the 
basic divisions of class society. 

At base there is an abstract and somewhat narrow similarity to all 
aesthetic appearance. This is due to a severe restriction of the sensual, 


Running on Emptiness 

enemy number one of reification. And remembering our Freud, it is 
the curbing of Eros that makes culture possible. Can it be an accident 
that the three senses that are excluded from art — touch, smell, and taste — 
are the senses of sensual love? 

Max Weber recognized that culture "appears as man's emancipation 
from the organically prescribed cycle of natural life. For this very reason," 
he continued, "culture's every step forward seems condemned to lead to 
an ever more devastating senselessness."" The representation of culture 
is followed by pleasure in representation that replaces pleasure per se. 
The will to create culture overlooks the violence in and of culture, a 
violence that is inescapable given culture's basis in fragmentation and 
separation. Every reification forgets this. 

For Homer, the idea of barbarism was of a piece with the absence 
of agriculture. Culture and agriculture have always been linked by 
their common basis of domestication; to lose the natural within us is 
to lose nature without. One becomes a thing in order to master things. 

Today the culture of global capitalism abandons its claim to be 
culture, even as the production of culture exceeds the production of 
goods. Reification, the process of culture, dominates when all awaits 
naturalization, in a constantly transformed environment that is "natural" 
in name only. Objects themselves — and even the "social" relationships 
among them — are seen as real only insofar as they are recognized as 
existing in mediaspace or cyberspace. 

A domesticating reification renders everything, including us, its 
objects. And these objects possess less and less originality or aura, as 
discussed by commentators from Baudelaire and Morris to Benjamin 
and Baudrillard. "Now from America empty indifferent things are 
pouring across, sham things, dummy life," wrote Rilke." Meanwhile 
the whole natural world has become a mere object. 

Postmodern practice severs things from their history and context, 
as in the device of inserting "quotations" or arbitrarily juxtaposed 
elements from other periods into music, painting, novels. This gives 
the objects a rootless autonomy of sorts, while subjects have little or 

We seem to be objects destroyed by objectification, our grounding 
and authenticity leached away. We are like the schizophrenic who actively 
experiences himself as a thing. 

That Thi ng we Do 


There is a coldness, even a deadness, that is becoming impossible to 
deny. A palpable sense of "something missing" inheres in the unmistak- 
able impoverishment of a world objectifying itself. Our only hope may 
lie precisely in the fact that the madness of the whole is so apparent. 

It is still maintained that reification is an ontological necessity in a 
complex world, which is exactly the point. The de-reifying act must be 
the return to simple, non-divided life. The life congealed and. con- 
cealed in petrified thingness cannot reawaken without a vast undoing of 
this ever-more standardized, massified lost world. . 

Until fairly recently — until civilization — nature was a subject, not 
an object. In hunter-gatherer societies no strict division or hierarchy 
existed between the human and the non-human. The participatory 
nature of vanished connectedness has to be restored, that condition in 
which meaning was lived, not objectified into a grid of symbolic culture. 
The very positive picture we now have of pre-history establishes a 
perspective of anticipatory remembrance: there is the horizon of 
subject-object reconciliation. 

This prior participation with nature is the reverse of the domina- 
tion and distancing at the heart of reification. It reminds us that all 
desire is a desire for relationship, at its best reciprocal and animate. To 
enable this nearness or presence is a gigantic practical project, that will 
make an end to these dark days. 



1. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (New York, 1972), p. 382. 

2. Edmund Husserl, Le Discours et le Symbole (Paris, 1962), p. 66. 

3. Novalis, Schriften, vol. //(Stuttgart, 1965-1977), p. 594. 

4. Iddo Landau, "Why Has the Question of the Meaning of Life Arisen in the 
Last Two and a Half Centuries?" Philosophy Today, Summer 1967. 

5. Quote attributed to the playwright Max Frisch. Source unknown. 

6. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of 'Mind (London, 1949) 

7. Theodor Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, 198 1), p. 240. 

8. Eduoard Le Roy, The New Philosophy of Henri Bergson (New York, 1913), p. 156. 

9. Martin Heidegger, "What is Thinking?" inBasic Writings (New York, 1969) 

66 Running On Emptiness 

10. Gilbert B. Germain, A Discourse on Disenchantment (Albany, 1992), p 

11. Friedrich Engels, Dialectic of Nature (Moscow, 1934), p. 231. 

12. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (Stanford, 1993), p. 2. 

13. Theodor Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, 1983) p. 262, for example. 

14. William Desmond, Perplexity and Ultimacy (Albany, 1995), p. 64. 

15. E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (Chicago, 1990), p. 126. 

16. Giovanni Tortelli, De Orthographic, 1471. 

17. Thomas Wynn, The Evolution of Spatial Competence (Urbana, 1989). 

18. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis, 1997), pp. 118, 184. 

19. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental 
Phenomenology (Evanston, 1970) 

20. Levi-Strauss, op.cit., p. 358. 

21. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, 1964), p. 236. 

22. WV Quine, From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge, 1995), p. 27. 

23. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Thinking (Philadelphia, 1990) 

24. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics," 
Philosophical Review 74 (1965), p. 12. 

25. C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, 1931-1958), vol. 5, pp. 

28, 29. 

26. Quine, op.cit., p. 29. 

27. Quotation is title of Robert Irwin's autobiographical work (Berkeley, 

28. Bradd B. Shore, Culture in Mind (New York, 1996), p. 222. 

29. Georges Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest (New York, 1977). 

30. Mircea Eliade, quoted in False Consciousness, by Joseph Gabel 
(Oxford, 1975), p. 39. 

31. J.G. Frazier, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New 
York, 1932-36), XLIX, P. 74. 

32. Mark Stevenson, "Mayan Stone's Discovery May Confirm Ancient 
Text" (Associated Press, November 17, 1997). 

33. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York, 





Interview by Derrick Jensen, published in The Sun, 
September 1998 

My conversation with John Zerzan was as free -form as I might have 
expected of a meeting between two anarchists. (Though I call mysejan 
anarchist, I'd before met one outside the covers of a book) What I 

hadn't expected was Zerzan 's soft^oken character. His writing is so sharp, 
uncompromising, and tenacious that IV halfway feared he would be as 
fierce in person as he is on the page. I was pleasantly disappointed: he is 
one of the most gracious, courteous, and simply nice people I've ever met. I 
shouldn't have been surprised. Anarchism is not only the desire to be free of 
domination, but also the desire not to dominate others personally. This 
abhorrence to manipulate permeates Zerzan's personality. He is also an 
extraordinarily good listener. This latter trait, though desirable in a friend, 
made my task as an interviewer much more difficult. Much as I tried to turn 
this into a "normal" interview, Zerzan steadfastly refused to play the role 
ofguru. Finally, I quit trying to place him in a role he clearly did not want 
and just let the tape recorder run while we talked. 

D J : What is Anarchism? 

JZ: I would say Anarchism is the attempt to eradicate all forms of 


Running On Emptiness 

domination. This includes not only such obvious forms as the nation- 
state, with its routine use of violence and the force of law, and the cor- 
poration, with its institutionalized irresponsibility, but also such inter- 
nalized forms as patriarchy, racism, homophobia. Also it is the attempt 
to expose the ways our philosophy, religion, economics, and other ide- 
ological constructions perform their primary function, which is to 
rationalize or naturalize — make seem natural — the domination that pervades 
our way of life: the destruction of the natural world or of indigenous 
peoples, for example, comes not as the result of decisions actively made 
and actions pursued, but instead, so we convince ourselves, as a 
manifestation of Darwinian selection, or God's Will, or economic 
exigency. Beyond that, Anarchism is the attempt to look even into those 
parts of our everyday lives we accept as givens, as parts of the universe, 
to see how they, too, dominate us or facilitate our domination of others. 
What is the role of division of labor in the alienation and destruction 
we see around us? Even more fundamentally, what is the relationship 
between domination and time, numbers, language, or even symbolic 
thought itself? 

The place where this definition gets a little problematic is that some 
Anarchists see some things as dominating, and some don't. For example, 
some Anarchists don't see the technological imperative as a category of 
domination. I do, and more and more Anarchists are finding themselves 
taking this anti-technological position. The further we follow this path 
of the technicization of both our interior and exterior lives, fewer and 
fewer Anarchists — and this is true as well of people who don't call 
themselves Anarchists — valorize technology and production and progress 
and the categories of modern technological life. 

Back to the definition. Most fundamentally I would see Anar- 
chism as a synonym for anti-authoritarianism. 

DJ: Isn't all this just tilting at windmills? Has such a condition ever 
existed, where relations have not been based on domination? 
JZ: That was the human condition for at least 99 percent of our exis- 
tence as a species, from well before the emergence of Homo sapiens, 
probably all the way back for at least a couple of million years, until 
perhaps only 10,000 years ago, with the emergence of first agriculture 
and then civilization. 

Enemy of the State 


Since that time we have worked very hard to convince ourselves that 
no such condition ever existed, because if no such condition ever existed, 
it's futile to work toward it now. We may as well then accept the 
repression and subjugation that define our way of living as necessary 
antidotes to "evil human nature." After all, according to this line of 
thought, our pre-civihzed existence of deprivation, brutality, and 
ignorance made authority a benevolent gift that rescued us from sav- 

Think about the images that come to mind when you mention the 
labels "cave man," or "Neanderthal." Those images are implanted and 
then invoked to remind us where we would be without religion, gov- 
ernment, and toil, and are probably the biggest ideological justifications 
for the whole van of civilization — armies, religion, law, the state — without 
which we would all live the brutal cliches of Hobbes. 

The problem with those images, of course, is that they are entirely 
wrong. There has been a potent revolution in the fields of anthropology 
and archaeology over the past 20 years, and increasingly people are coming 
to understand that life before agriculture and domestication — in which 
by domesticating others we domesticated ourselves — was in fact 
largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual 
equality, and health. 

DJ: How do we know this? 

JZ: In part through observing modern foraging peoples — what few 
we've not yet eliminated — and watching their egalitarian ways disap- 
pear under the pressures of habitat destruction and oftentimes direct 
coercion or murder. Also, at the other end of the time scale, through 
interpreting archaeological digs. An example of this has to do with the 
sharing that is now understood to be a keynote trait of non-domesti- 
cated people. If you were to study hearth sites of ancient peoples, and 
to find that one fire site has the remains of all the goodies, while other 
sites have very few, then that site would probably be the chiefs. But if 
time after time you see that all the sites have about the same amount of 
stuff, what begins to emerge is a picture of a people whose way of life is 
based on sharing. And that's what is consistently found in preneolithic 
sites. A third way of knowing is based on the accounts of early European 
explorers, who again and again spoke of the generosity 


Running On Emptiness 

and gentleness of the peoples they encountered. This is true all across 
the globe. 

DJ: How do you respond to people who say this is all just nutty 

Rousseauvian noble savage nonsense? 

JZ: I respectfully suggest they read more within the field. This isn't 

Anarchist theory. It's mainstream anthropology and archaeology. There 

are disagreements about some of the details, but not about the general 


D.T: But what about the Aztecs, or stories we're told of headhunters or 

JZ: Considering that our culture is the only one to ever invent 
napalm or nuclear weapons, I'm not sure we're in much of a moral 
place to comment on the infinitely smaller-scale violence of other cul- 
tures. But it's important to note a great divide in the behavior of indigenous 
groups. None of the cannibal or headhunting groups — and certainly not 
the Aztecs — were true hunter-gatherers. They had already begun 
agriculture. It is now generally conceded that agriculture usually leads to 
a rise in labor, a decrease in sharing, an increase in violence, a shortening 
of lifespan, and so on. This is not to say that all agricultural societies 
are violent, but to point out that this violence is not by and large 
characteristic of true hunter-gatherers. 

DJ: Can you define domestication? 

JZ: It's the attempt to bring free dimensions under control for self- 
serving purposes. 

DJ: If things were so great before, why did agriculture begin? 
JZ: That's a very difficult question, because for so many hundreds of 
thousands of years, there was very little change, it was almost frozen. 
That's long been a source of frustration to scholars in anthropology and 
archaeology: how could there have been almost zero change for hundreds 
of thousands of years — the whole lower and middle Paleolithic — and then 
suddenly at a certain point in the upper Paleolithic there's this 
explosion, seemingly out of nowhere? You suddenly have art, and on the 
heels of that, agriculture. Virtual activity. Religion. 

Enemy of the State 


And what's especially striking, it seems to me, is that now 
we see that the intelligence of humanity a million years ago 
was equal to what it is now. Thomas Wynn, for example, argues 
this very persuasively. Recently there was a piece in Nature 
magazine of a new finding that humans may have been sailing and 
navigating around what is now Micronesia some 800,000 years 
ago. All of this means that the reason civilization didn't arise 
earlier had nothing to do with intelligence. The intelligence 
argument has always been both comforting and racist anyway, 
comforting in that it reduces the role of choice by implying that 
those who are intelligent enough to build a lifestyle like ours 
necessarily will, and racist in implying that even those humans 
alive today who live primitive lifestyles are simply too stupid to 
do otherwise. If they were just smart enough, the reasoning 
goes, they too could invent asphalt, chainsaws, and 

We also know that the transition didn't come because of 
population pressures. Population has always been another big 
puzzle: how did foraging humanity keep the population so low, 
when they didn't have technologies? Historically, it's been 
assumed they used infanticide, but that theory has been kind 
of debunked. I believe that in addition to the various plants 
they could use as contraceptives they were also much more in 
tune with their bodies. 

But back to the question: Why was it stable for so long, and then 
why did it change so quickly? I think it was stable because it worked, 
and I think it changed finally because for many millennia there was a 
kind of slow slippage into division of labor. This happened so 

slowly— almost imperceptibly— that people didn't see what was 
happening, or what they were in danger of losing. The 
alienation brought about by division of labor— alienation from 
each other, from the natural world, from their bodies— then 
reached some sort of critical mass, giving rise to its apotheosis 
in what we've come to know as civilization. As to how 
civilization itself took hold, I think Freud nailed that one when 
he said that "civilization is something which was imposed on a 
resisting majority by a minority which understood how to 
obtain possession of the means of power and coercion." 
That's what we see happening today, and there's no reason to 
believe it was any different in the first place. 


Running on Emptiness 

DJ: What's wrong with division of labor? 
JZ: That depends on what you want out of life. If your 
primary goal is mass production, nothing at all. It's central to 
our way of life. Each person performs as a tiny cog in this big 
machine. If, on the other hand, your primary goal is relative 
wholeness, egalitarianism, autonomy, or an intact world, there's 
quite a lot wrong with it. 

dj : I don't understand. 

JZ: Division of labor is generally seen, when even noticed at all, as a 
banality, a "given" of modern life. All we see around us would be 
completely impossible without this cornerstone of production. But 
that's the point. Undoing all this mess will mean undoing division of labor. 

I think that at base a person is not complete or free insofar as 
that person's life and the whole surrounding setup depends on 
his or her being just some aspect of a process, some fraction of 
it. A divided life mirrors the basic divisions in society and it all 
starts there. Hierarchy and alienation start there, for example. 

I don't think anyone would deny the effective control that 
specialists or experts have in the contemporary world. And I 
don't think anyone would argue that control isn't increasing with 
ever-greater acceleration. 

DJ: Such as in food production. I recently read, that one out of every 
ten dollars Americans spend on food goes to RJR Nabisco. Four meat 
packers control ninety percent of meat processing. Eight corporations 
control half of the poultry industry. Ninety percent of all agri chemical 
and feed-grain industries are controlled by two percent of the corpora- 
tions involved. And how many of us know how to raise our own food? 
JZ : Exactly. And it's not just food. It wasn't that long ago you could 
make your own radio set. People used to do that all the time. Even 

ten years ago you could still work on your car. That is becoming 
increasingly difficult. So the world becomes more and more 
hostage to people with these specialized skills, and on the people 
who control specialized technologies. When you have to rely on 
others, when you don't have the skills to do what's needed in a 
general sense, you are diminished. 

Enemy of the state 


DJ: But humans are social animals. Isn't it necessary for us to 
rely on each other? 

JZ : I don't want to make it seem like my model is to turn 
people into monads with no connection to others. Quite the 
opposite. But it's important to understand the difference 
between the interdependence of a functioning community, and 
a form of dependence that comes from relying on others who 
have specialized skills you don't. They now have power over 
you. Whether they are "benevolent" in its use is really beside 
the point. 

DJ: This reminds me of something the Russian Anarchist 
Kropotkin wrote about revolution, that the question taking 
precedence over all others is that of bread. This is because scarcity 
of food is the strongest weapon with counterrevolutionary 
forces: by withholding food or creating a blockade, those in 
power can force people back into compliance. JZ : In addition 
to the direct control by those who have specialized skills, there 
is a lot of mystification of those skills. Part of the ideology of 
modern society is that without it, you'd be completely lost, you 
wouldn't know how to do the simplest thing. Well, humans 
have been feeding themselves for the past couple of million 
years, and doing it a lot more successfully and efficiently than we 
do now. The global food system is insane. It's amazingly 
inhumane and inefficient. We waste the world with pesticides, 
herbicides, the effects of fossil fuels to transport and store 
foods, and so on, and literally billions of people go their entire 
lives without ever having enough to eat. But few things are simpler 
than growing or gathering your own food. 

DJ: Last year I interviewed a member of the Tupac Amaru 
Revolutionary Movement, the group that took over the Japanese 
Ambassador's house in Peru. I asked him what his group 
wanted for his country. He replied, "We want to grow and 
distribute our own food. We already know how to do that, we 
merely need to be allowed to do so." jz: Exactly. 

DJ: How much division of labor do you believe we should 
jettison? JZ : I think the appropriate question is, "How much 
wholeness for ourselves and the planet do we want?" 


Running On Emptiness 

DJ: You mentioned earlier you see a relationship between time and 

JZ: Two things that come to mind. The first is that time is an inven- 
tion, a cultural artifact, a formation of culture. It has no existence 
outside of culture. The second is that time is a pretty exact measure of 
alienation. And I believe that the present informs the past, or rather 
gives directions to looking at the origins of modern alienation. 

D.T: How so? 

JZ: Let's start at the present. Time has never been as palpable, as 
material, as it is now. It's never existed as a reification with so much 
presence. Everything in our lives is measured and ruled by time. 

D.T: Even dreams, it occurs to me, as we force them to conform to a 
workaday world of alarm clocks and schedules. 

JZ: It's really amazing when you think that it wasn't that long ago 
that time wasn't so disembodied, so abstract. 

DJ: But wait a second. Isn't the tick, tick, tick of a clock about as tan- 
gible as you can get? 

JZ: It becomes concrete. That's what reification means, when a concept 
is treated as a thing, even when it isn't really a thing, but just a concept. A 
second is nothing, and to grant it separate existence is counter to our 
experience of living. I really like what Levy-Bruhl wrote about this: 
"Our idea of time seems to be a natural attribute of the human mind. 
But that is a delusion. Such an idea scarcely exists where primitive 
mentality is concerned. " 

DJ: Which means.... 

JZ: Most simply, that they live in the present, as we all do when we're 
having fun. It has been said that the Mbuti of southern Africa believe 
that "by a correct fulfillment of the present, the past and the future 
will take care of themselves. " 

DJ: What a concept! 

JZ: Of the North American Pawnee it was said that life has a rhythm 

but not a progression. Primitive peoples generally have no interest in 

Enemy of the State 


birthdays or measuring their ages. As for the future, they have 
little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they 
have little desire to control nature. That moment-by-moment 
joining with the flux and flow of the natural world of course 
doesn't preclude an awareness of the seasons, but this in no 
way constitutes an alienated time consciousness that robs them 
of the present. 

What I'm talking about is really hard for us to wrap our 
minds around, because the notion of time has been so deeply 
inculcated that it's sometimes hard to imagine it not existing. 

dj: You're not talking about just not measuring seconds.... 
jz : I'm talking about time not existing. Time, as an abstract 
continuing "thread" that unravels in an endless progression that 
links all events together while remaining independent of them. 
That doesn't exist. Sequence exists. Rhythm exists. But not time. 
Part of this has to do with the notion of mass production and 
division of labor. Tick, tick, tick, as you said. Identical seconds. 
Identical people. Identical chores repeated endlessly. Well, no two 
occurrences are identical, and if you are living in a stream of 
inner and outer experience that constantly brings clusters of new 
events, each moment is quantitatively and qualitatively different 
than the moment before. The notion of time simply disappears. 

dj: I'm still confused. 

JZ: You might try this: if events are always novel, then not 
only would routine be impossible, but the notion of time 
would be meaningless. 

dj: And the opposite would be true as well. 
jz: Exactly. Only with the imposition of time can we begin to 
impose routine. Freud was really clear on this. He repeatedly 
pointed out that in order for civilization— with alienation at its 
core— to take place, it first had to break the early hold of 
timeless and non-productive gratification. 

This happened, I believe, in two stages. First the rise of agriculture 
magnified the importance of time, and specifically reified cyclical time, 
with its periods of intense labor associated with sowing or reaping, and 
with the surplus of the harvest going to support those who ran the cal- 


Running On Emptiness 

endars: the priests. This was true of the Babylonians, and 
of the Mayans. In the West, the notion of cyclical time, which 
still maintained at least a bow toward the natural world with its 
connection to the rhythms of the days and seasons, gave way to 
linear time. This began with the rise of civilization, and really took 
hold near the start of the Christian era. And of course once 
you have linear time, you have history, then progress, then an 
idolatry of the future that sacrifices species, languages, cultures, 
and now quite possibly the entire natural world on the altar of 
some future. Once this was at least the altar of a Utopian future, 
but we don't even have that to believe in anymore. The same 
thing happens in our personal lives, as we give up living in the 
moment in exchange for the hope of being able to live in the 
moment at some point in the future, perhaps after we retire, or 
maybe even after we die and go to heaven. This otherworldly 
emphasis on heaven, too, emerges from the unpleasantness of 
living in linear time. 

DJ: It seems to me that linear time not only leads to habitat 
degradation, but also springs from it. If everything is in 
reasonable balance, you are still on cyclical time, or as you 
mention, not on time at all, but as soon as you begin degrading 
your habitat such that there are perceptible changes, you've 
entered historical time. When I was young, there were many frogs. 
Now there are fewer. There were many songbirds. Now there are 
fewer. That's linear time. I can count the passage of years by 
counting clearcuts. Historical time will only cease once the last 
vestiges of our civilization cease to be, once the last steel beams 
of the last skyscrapers rust into dust, and once this current 
spasm of extinctions abates, and once again those who remain 
can enter a rhythm, a peace. JZ: Yes. 

Linear time then transformed itself with the introduction of 
the clock into mechanical time. All connection to the natural 
world or to the present was lost, subsumed to the tyranny of the 
machine and of production. The Church was central to this 
endeavor. The Benedictines, who ruled 40,000 monasteries at 
their height in the Middle Ages, helped to yoke human 
endeavor to the regular, collective beat and rhythm of the 
machine by forcing people to work "on the clock." 

The fourteenth century saw the first public clocks, and also 
the division of hours into minutes and minutes into seconds. The 

Enemy of the State 


of time were now as fully interchangeable as the standardized parts 

and work processes necessary for capitalism. 

At every step of the way this subservience to time has 
been met with resistance. For example, in early fighting in 
France's July Revolution of 1830, all across Paris people began 
to spontaneously shoot at public clocks. In the 1960s, many 
people, including me, quit wearing watches. 

DJ: For a while in my twenties, : asked visitors to take off their 
watches as they entered my home. 

JZ: Even today children must be broken of their resistance 
to time. This was one of the primary reasons for the imposition 
of this country's mandatory school system on a largely unwilling 
public. School teaches you to be at a certain place at a 
certain time, and prepares you for life in a factory. It calibrates 
you to the system. Raoul Vaneigem has a wonderful quote 
about this: "The child's days escape adult time; their time is 
swollen by subjectivity, passion, dreams haunted by reality. 
Outside, the educators look on, waiting, watch in hand, till the 
child joins and fits the cycle of the hours." 

Time is not only important sociologically and ecologically, but 
personally. If I can share another quote, it would be Wittgenstein's: 
"Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy." 

DJ: You mentioned also that number alienates.... 
JZ: You count objects. You don't count subjects. When 
members of a large family sit down to dinner, they know 
immediately without counting whether someone is missing 
without counting. Counting only becomes necessary when you 
have homogenized things. 

Not all peoples use systems of numbers. The Yanomami, for 
example, do not count past two. Obviously they are not 
stupid. But just as obviously, they have a different relationship 
with the natural world. 

The first number system was almost undoubtedly used to 
measure and control domesticated flock or herd animals, as wild 
creatures became products to be harvested. We next see 
mathematics being used in Sumer about 5000 years ago to 
facilitate business. Later, Euclid developed his geometry, literally 
meaning "land measuring," explicitly 


Running On Emptiness 

to measure fields for reasons of ownership, taxation, and slave 
labor. Today the same imperative drives science, only now it is 
the entire universe we are trying to measure and enslave. Once 
again, this isn't obscure Anarchist theory. Descartes himself, 
considered by many to be the father of modern science, 
declared that the aim of science is "to make us as masters and 
possessors of nature." He also declared the universe a giant 
clockwork, tying these two forms of domination— numbers and 
time— back neatly together. 

DJ: I've read that Nazi death camps often had quotas to fill as 
to how many people they were to kill each day. Today National 
Forests have deforestation quotas, as they must "produce" a 
certain number of board feet. It's long been clear to me that 
it's easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we are 
talking about boxcars of untermenschen, millions of board feet 
of timber, or tons of fish. Where does this leave us? 
JZ : In a dying world. Alienated. 

dj: Alienated? 

JZ : Marx defined alienation as being separated from the means 
of production. Instead of producing things to use, we are used 
by the system. I would take it a step further and say that to me it 
means estranged from our own experiences, dislodged from a 
natural mode of being. The more technicized and artificial the 
world becomes, and as the natural world is evacuated, there's 
an obvious sense of being alienated from a natural 

To refer again to a pre-domesticated state, I think people 
once were in touch with themselves as organisms in ways we can't 
even comprehend. On the level of the senses, there are 
credible accounts of San hearing a single-engine plane seventy 
miles away, and seeing four of the moons of Jupiter with the 
unaided eye. And this connection of course extended to those 
around them: Laurens Van der Post stated that the San 
seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a 
lion, an antelope, and so on. This connection was then 
reciprocated. There are scores if not hundreds of accounts by early 
European explorers describing the lack of fear shown by wild 
animals toward humans. 

Enemy of the State 


DJ: Just last year I came across an account by the eighteenth-century 
explorer Samual Hearne, the first white man to explore northern Canada. 
He described Indian children playing with wolf pups. The children would 
paint the pups' faces with vermilion or red ochre, and when they were 
done playing with them return them unhurt to the den. Neither the 
pups nor the pups' parents seemed to mind at all. JZ: Now we gun them 
down from airplanes. That's progress for you. 

DJ: More broadly, what has progress meant in practice? 
JZ: Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehu- 
manization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse. I 
think there are fewer people who believe in it now than ever, but probably 
there are still many who perceive it as inevitable. We're certainly 
conditioned on all sides to accept that, and we're held hostage to it, too. 
The idea now is to have everybody dependent on technology in an 
increasingly immiserated sense. In terms of human health, it means 
increasing dependence on technologies, but what we're supposed to forget 
is that the technologies created these problems in the first place. Not just 
cancers caused by chemicals. Nearly all diseases are diseases either of 
civilization, alienation, or gross habitat destruction. 

DJ: I have Crohn's Disease, which is virtually unheard of in nonin- 
dustrialized nations, only becoming common as these nations industri- 
alize. In all literal truth industrial civilization is eating away at my guts. 
JZ: I think people are really starting to understand how hollow the progress 
myth has been. Maybe that's too sanguine. But the fruits of it are too 
hard to miss. In fact the system doesn't talk so much about progress 

DJ: What new word has replaced it? 

JZ: Inertia. This is it. Deal with it, or else get screwed. You don't hear so 
much now about the American Dream, or the glorious new tomorrow. 
Now it's a global race for the bottom as transnationals compete to see 
which can most exploit workers, most degrade the environment. 

That competition thing works on the personal level, too. If you don't 
plug into computers you won't get a job. That's progress. 


Running On Emptiness 

DJ: Where does that leave us? 

JZ: I'm optimistic, because never before has our whole lifestyle 

been revealed as much for what it is. 

DJ: Having seen it, what is there to do? 

JZ: The first thing is to question it, to make certain that part 
of the discourse of society— if not all of it— deals with these life 
and death issues, instead of the avoidance and denial that 
characterizes so much of what passes for discourse. And I 
believe, once again, that this denial can't hold up much longer, 
because there's such a jarring contrast between reality and 
what is said about reality. Especially in this country, I would 

Maybe, and this is the nightmare scenario, that contrast can go 
on forever. The Unabomber Manifesto posits that 
possibility: people Could just be so conditioned that they won't 
even notice there's no natural world anymore, no freedom, no 
fulfillment, no nothing. You just take your Prozac everyday, limp 
along dyspeptic and neurotic, and figure that's all there is. 

But the way to break through that, the way to break the 
monopoly of lies, is simply to break the monopoly of lies, and 
bring out the old emperor has no clothes bit in its reality, its 
fullness, in how awful it really is, and what is at stake. To 
contrast what is possible— what has been, and what could again 
someday be— with how miserable the present is and what the 
immediate future will bring. 

Clearly if we don't break the monopoly of lies, in a few 
decades there won't be much left to fight for. Especially when 
you consider 

the acceleration of environmental degradation and personal 

So it's doubly crucial that dialog includes these off-limits 
subjects of how bad things really are. We need to redefine the 
acceptable discourse of this society. To refer to the Unabomber 
again, he decided he had to kill people to bring up this 
suppressed point of view. And he forced them to publish it. The 
point here is not whether he was justified or not, but merely to 
reveal the level of denial. This denial is not going to be changed 
by little reforms, and the planet is not going to be saved by 
recycling. To think it will is just silly. Or no, it's not silly, it's 
criminal. We have to face what's going on. Once we've faced 

Enemy of the State 


then we can together figure out how to change it, how to completely 
transform it. 

You asked, "What's progress?" Take a look. 

We need to talk about alienation. That's the number one 
problem. Two days ago I read in the paper that the young have 
never smoked as much as they do now. All the anti-smoking 
programs in the world aren't going to overcome the alienation at 
the root of this and other addictions. Take the war on drugs. All 
the billboards and flashy videos and all that shit aren't going to 
help one bit, because we aren't doing anything about the 
conditions that produce it. So we're in this never-never land 
where at least some people think if you produce some hip stuff 
about smoking or dope you can change something. But it's 
more of the avoidance and denial. It's more of the problem. 

What is the system that generates these malignant 
things? Let's talk about that, even though it's forbidden. Still 
it's forbidden to talk about the fundamental nature of the 
global system. Before we jump to what are the specific 
answers, the very first thing, the essential thing is just to face 
it as a question, to pose it as a question, to talk about it as a 
question. Otherwise it's pointless to talk about the tactics. 

There's a debate going on in Earth First! now about the 
question of violence versus nonviolence. But I think even Earth 
First! is missing the point. I think people get so exercised about 
tactics because they haven't faced the more fundamental 
questions: what are we really trying to do? What's the 
overview? What's our grasp on things? What is the meaning of 
our work? Tactics arise organically in large part from your 
starting position. But if you don't want to talk about where you 
are, your talk of tactics is meaningless. 

The place to start is by asking questions like: how can we make a 
radical break? Is what we're doing contributing to a radical break? Do 
we even want a radical break? Do we want to have a few more liberals, 
who will chop down a few fewer trees? Is that all we want? 

DJ: I just wrote an article for Earth First! surrounding that 
same question: when is violence appropriate? My belief also is 
that this isn't the most basic question. The question I would 
ask is: to what depth do we feel the destruction in our bodies? 

I have on my wall a news clipping headlined "Mother bear charges 


Running On Emptiness 

trains." I keep it because if we're able to perceive the situation 
deeply enough in our bodies— like the mother grizzly who 
charges the train that killed her sons— we will know precisely 
what to do. She didn't go into theoretical discussions of right and 
wrong; her response was embodied. 

JZ: And it's the same for people who hate their jobs. If they 
would just reenter their bodies, they would know what they 
need to do. 

DJ: I read accounts of the lives some people have— for example, 
miners who are underground from dawn to dusk day after 
day— and I wonder how they survive. So far as we know, we 
only get one life, and what the hell are you gonna do 
spending it all breaking your back? JZ: Or causing others to 
break their backs. I was having a discussion about technological 
society with a few friends, and some of them were saying, "Well, 
we've got to have phones. We can't do away with them." And 
another friend responded, "Are you going to go down in the 
mines? Are you going to do that?" Because our whole lifestyle is 
predicated on someone having to slave his or her life away, or 
rather millions and millions of someones. 

I wouldn't go down there unless you put a gun to my head. And of 
course some people do have guns to their heads, because they don't 
have as much flexibility as you or I do so far as surviving. But those of 
us who don't have guns to our heads need to be aware of the bargains 
we make in order to live the way we do. 

DJ: Let's talk more about technology. Isn't technology just driven by 

JZ: You hear people say this all the time: "You can't put the 
genie back in the bottle"; "You're asking people to forget." 
Stuff like that. But that's just another attempt to naturalize 
the craziness. And it's a variant of that same old racist 
intelligence argument. Because the Hopi didn't invent 
backhoes, they must not be curious. Sure, people are naturally 
curious. But about what? Did you or I aspire to create the neutron 
bomb? Of course not. That's crazy. Why would people want to 
do that in the first place? They don't. But the fact that I don't 
want to create a neutron bomb doesn't mean I'm not curious. 
Curiosity is not value free. Certain types of curiosity arise from 
certain types of 

Enemy of the State 


mindsets, and our own "curiosity" follows the logic of alienation, not 
simple wonder, not learning something to become a better person. Our 
"curiosity," taken as a whole, leads us in the direction of further 
domination. How could it do any other? 

DJ: We may try to make better mousetraps — more efficient ways to 
kill small rodents — but I don't see us working real hard to stop rape, 
child abuse, or global warming. Strange the things we apply this much- 
vaunted curiosity to. 

Also, I think about friends. I want to learn about them so 
we can be better friends, not so I can utilize them more 
efficiently. That is true for humans and nonhumans alike. 
JZ: We gotta hope this thing collapses. 

DJ: Speaking of collapse, how do you see the future playing 
out? JZ: I was talking to a friend about it this afternoon, 
and he was giving reasons why there isn't going to be a good 
outcome, or even an opening toward a good outcome. I couldn't 
say he was wrong, but as I mentioned before, I'm kind of 
betting that the demonstrable impoverishment on every level 
goads people into the kind of questioning we're talking about, 
and toward mustering the will to confront it. Perhaps now 
we're in the dark before the dawn. I remember when Marcuse 
wrote One Dimensional Man. It came out in about 1964, and 
he was saying that humans are so manipulated in modern 
consumerist society that there really can be no hope for 
change. And then within a couple of years things got pretty 
interesting, people woke up from the '50s to create the 
movements of the '60s. I believe had he written this book a 
little later it would have been much more positive. 

Perhaps the '60s helped shape my own optimism. I was at 
the almost perfect age. I was at Stanford, in college, and then I 
moved to Haight-Ashbury, and Berkeley was across the Bay. I got 
into some interesting situations just because I was in the right 
place at the right time. I agree with people who say the '60s 
didn't even scratch the surface, but you have to admit there was 
something going on. And you could get a glimpse, a sense of 
possibility, a sense of hope, that if things kept going, there was a 
chance of us finding a different path. 

They didn't, but I still carry that possibility, and it warms me, even 


Running On Emptiness 

though thirty years later things are frozen, and awful. 

Sometimes I'm amazed that younger people can do anything, or 
have any hope, because I'm not sure they've seen any challenge that 
has succeeded even partially. 

DJ: Certainly none coming from the environmental movement. 
JZ: I have that amazing boost in my life and my psyche that 
younger people don't. And I am so very impressed at the 
capacity for hope among the young. 

DJ: Some say that the '60s were the last big burst, the last 
gasp, and from then on it's been downhill. 

JZ: I sometimes think of it that way, like it was the Big Bang, and 
everything's been cooling ever since. Or like an earthquake, 
followed by aftershocks. I was in San Francisco in '76 and '77 
during the punk explosion, and that was very exciting, but there 
was no sense this was going to kickstart a new round of 
change. We hoped so, but didn't think so. 

But I think we're coming to a big one, something much 
bigger than the '60s. Not only because we have to, if we are to 
survive, but also because back then we had a tremendously high 
level of illusion. Much of our idealism was misplaced, and we 
believed it wouldn't take that much to effect significant change. 
We had a certainly unwarranted faith in institutions, and we 
didn't think things through far enough. We weren't grounded 
enough, tied tightly enough to reality. Now if that 
revolutionary energy comes back it's going to be far more 
total. DJ: I used to teach at Eastern Washington University, 
and I would ask my students if we live in a democracy. They 
wouldn't bother to answer, but would just laugh. I would ask if 
the government cares more for the rights of corporations or 
individuals. Same response. That filled me with hope. 
JZ: I first really saw that when I moved back to Oregon from 
California in 1981. It was the day Reagan was shot. It was a 
total contrast to the killing of Kennedy. In 1963 people cried 
and mourned. It was a trauma. But in 1981 that wasn't the case. 
I had delivered a car to Eugene, and then had to take a bus to 
my parents' home. As I walked into the bus station, there were a 
bunch of people huddled around this 

Enemy of the State 


little portable tv set. It was coverage of the assassination 
attempt. They didn't know yet if Reagan was dead. There 
had been some sort of event, and the people waiting for the 
bus were primarily students from Oregon State, which is, as I 
suspect is the case for Eastern Washington, a conservative 
school. Anyway, everyone was laughing and chuckling and 
carrying on. They were scathing. I just listened the whole way, 
and really noticed the total lack of faith in the government. So 
this time when things blow, they're going to blow for real. 

D J: In Elements of Refusal you go into great detail about how in the 
early part of this century, there was a tremendous amount of revolu- 
tionary energy in the air, and that in many ways World War I was an 
explicit attempt to destroy that energy through the carnage of state- 
sponsored violence. 

]Z: War, of course, always requires a good excuse, especially 
when the state's real enemies are, more clearly than usual, its 
own citizenry. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand well-suited 
the needs of a dying regime. But by no means did it cause the 
war. First, the assassination was not atypical. Many European 
heads of state or upper level administrators were killed in the 
years just previous. Next, the immediate reaction all through 
Europe to the news of the assassination was indifference. The 
people took little notice, and the stock market didn't really 
respond at all. 

We've also been told that the war came because an intricate 
series of treaties guaranteed that any localized conflict would 
quickly spread. That's nonsense. After the assassination Austria- 
Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. But Serbia 
capitulated! There was no reason for war! Nonetheless, 
Austria-Hungary needed a war, and a big one, so war was 
declared anyway. And why would Russia defend an already- 
capitulated Serbia? Because it, too, needed a war to stave off its 
own imminent collapse. 

The real reason for the war, I believe, had to do with the 
tremendous unrest in all of Europe. 1913 and 1914 had seen 
immense strikes all across Russia. Austria-Hungary was on the 
verge of civil war. Revolutionary movements and radical unions 
were on the ascent in the United States, Germany, France, Italy, 
England. Even George V acknowledged this when he said in the 
summer of 1914, just before 


Running On Emptiness 

the war, "The cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible 
and sober-minded of my people." Things had to explode. 

But how would things explode, and at whom would this 
explosion be directed? What better way to destroy hope than 
through a long and pointless war? And it worked. Most 
unions and left-wing parties backed the war, and those that 
didn't— like the Wobblies here in the US— the state simply 
destroyed. After the war not many people had the heart 
anymore to pursue revolution, and those who did, like Mus- 
solini or the Bolsheviks, were not true revolutionaries in terms of 
overturning the social order, but instead opportunists who 
turned the power vacuums to their own advantage. 

DJ: Does that parallel make you think there will be another 
big war? JZ: Sure, but this one can only last 24 hours, 
because people won't support it any longer than that.... 

DJ: Where do you think all this energy— it seems odd to call 
alienation energy— is going to go? 

JZ: Is it piling up? I don't know. I definitely know we aren't 
the happy mindless consumers we're supposed to be. Or even 
if we believe we are, our bodies know better. I recently wrote 
a short review of the new book by Ellen Showalter, called 
Hysterias. In this she talks about what she calls six different 
hysterias of the '90s: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War 
Syndrome, recovered memory, satanic cults, and so on. 
Some people are very offended because it sounds like she's 
saying it's all in your head. 

DJ: Even her choice of title is very revealing in that manner. 
Freud chose the term hysteria to describe his patients' 
descriptions of childhood sexual abuse at the hands and genitals 
of their fathers. At first he believed these accounts, and began to 
uncover a tremendous epidemic of incest, an epidemic that 
continues unabated to this day. But when he began to go 
public with these findings, they were so ill-received that he 
found himself quickly backing away, and created an entire 
philosophy around his denial of this evidence. To allow himself 
to disbelieve these accounts, he called the women hysterical. 
JZ: I hear what you're saying, and that's a very good point. 
Where I'm taking this, however, is in a slightly different direction. 
It seems to me. 

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and I have to say the book is very undeveloped, that the point 
of her book is that we are all so miserable, and so deeply in 
denial, that these crises will keep arising, whether or not they 
have physical geneses: once each "hysteria" passes by, 
another will arise. And you'll never find any cures. You might 
say that in the case of Gulf War Syndrome this takes the 
government off the hook by suggesting the government 
didn't poison or irradiate American troops. But it seems to me 
more radical to say that not only may the government have 
poisoned Americans— which it's done so many times as to 
almost be banal— but that no matter what you are doing or 
where you live, life now is so crippling, alienated, bizarre, and 
fucked as to spawn all these potentially psychogenic problems. Of 
course we all know that's the case, with little kids mowing each 
other down in school— four cases of it in four months— and all 
sorts of other outrages unimaginable even ten years ago. And 
now they're commonplace. Expected even. What the hell 
does that say about our way of living? No longer can anyone get 
away with particularizing any of these problems. It's all just so 
fundamentally rotten and pathological that it indicts the whole 

Sure the government is capable of and willing to poison its 
own citizens. Happens all the time. But it's even worse.... 
DJ: No matter how you look at it, it's damning. If the 
government didn't poison the soldiers in this case, what's the 
psychogenic cause of the syndrome? And if it did, which I 
believe is the case, what the hell does that mean? What does 
it mean that our own "elected" government would poison us? 

This leads to a difficulty I have with this whole discussion. It's 
something I've not yet answered in my own work. Not only do 
we have to remember or relearn how to live sustainably, but we 
have to figure out how to deal with those forces that right now 
are destroying all those who do live sustainably. It's all very 
good for us to talk about living sanely and without domination, 
but we all know what would happen if we in our communities 
developed sustainable ways to live, and members of the 
dominant culture wanted our resources. We and our 
community would be destroyed, and our resources would be 

JZ: That's just a reality. We'd like to think that violence isn't 
necessary in response, but I'm not sure if that's the case. 


Running On Emptiness 

Now, you can say that if upheavals are large enough, 
actually there isn't very much violence. 

DJ: Tell me more. 

JZ: The first example that comes to mind is the May 1968 
uprising in France, in which ten million people, in a wildcat strike, 
just began to occupy their workplaces. Astronomers, factory 
workers, you name it. Students provided the trigger, but after 
that all these grievances came out in a rush. The police and the 
army were completely useless to the state, because the whole 
country was involved. For a time they considered sending in 
NATO. Unfortunately, the uprising didn't last very long before it 
was brought under control, mainly by the leftists and unions 
who wanted to co-opt the revolutionary energy for their reformist 
demands. But for a time the people really had control of the entire 
country. And it was totally nonviolent. Violence wasn't necessary. 

DJ: But the uprising created no long-term change, did it? 
JZ: No. But it did expose how really fragile are the powers of 
coercion that the state has. In that kind of mass uprising the 
state is helpless. 

We saw that again in the collapse of state capitalism in the 
USSR and the East Block. There was not much violence. It just 
all fell apart. I'm not saying that's going to happen, nor am I 
saying that collapse led to any sort of radical shift, but it does 
point out there have been bloodless upheavals in history. 

DJ: Maybe one of the things that can help us through this is 
the natural world. The system is already beginning to collapse, 
and I think one of the things we can do is try to make sure that 
grizzly bear and salmon stay alive through the crash. Another 
thing we can do is attempt to articulate these alternatives. 

JZ: Which is what I believe we are trying to do here. 

DJ: I want to come back to the question of what one does with the 
knowledge that those in power have tanks and guns and 
airplanes. This seems to me one of the fundamental questions 
of our time, if not the fundamental question. How does one 
respond sanely and effectively 

Enemy Of the State 


to outrageously destructive behavior? How does a fundamentally 
peaceful person respond to violence? How do you make peace 
with the fact that in order to end coercion, you may have to 
coerce? You may have to coerce the coercers. 

JZ: That is a tough one. You read the journals of Columbus— 
and there are hundreds of examples of this type of thing— 
where the peaceful indigenous people greeted the invaders 
with open arms. The smart thing to have done, I suppose, 
would have been to cut the throats of the invaders. I don't 
think many people would argue with that, or if they would, 
they have probably not been the subject of violence in their 
own person, their own family, their own community. But the 
question arises, among these peaceful people, where would the 
imperative to cut the invaders' throats have come from? Not 
only the knowledge of what was going to happen to them, but 
also the moral knowledge to commit that violence. It was not 
their way. 

DJ: Sherman Alexie tells this great story about how he 
wishes he would have been alive when Columbus landed. He 
proceeds through all manner of violence he would have done 
to Columbus and his troops, then stops and says, "No, we 
couldn't have done that. That is not who we are." 
JZ: Maybe you just have to say that the second time around it 
isn't going to be that way. We didn't make this culture. We 
didn't turn the world into the battleground and cemetery it has 
become. We didn't turn human relations into the parody they 
have become. But now it is our responsibility to overcome what 
our culture has created. Maybe you could say that now we 
must be what we must be to overcome it. Adorno talks about 
that, about overcoming alienation with alienation. How does 
that work? I don't know, but I think about it. Anybody who 
cares about the continuation of life on the planet really has to, 
at this point. To take it to the most personal level, could you 
kill somebody, if you knew that to do so would save other lives? 

DJ: Lately I've been reading a lot about German resistance to 
Hitler, and I have been struck by the fact that despite 
knowing Hitler had to be removed before a "decent" 
government could be installed, they spent more time creating 
paper versions of this theoretical government 


Running On Emptiness 

than attempting to remove him from power. It wasn't a lack of courage 
that caused this blindness but rather a misguided sense of morals. Karl 
Goerdeler, for instance, though tireless in attempting to create this new 
government, staunchly opposed assassinating Hitler, believing that if 
only the two could sit face to face Hitler might relent. How do you 
wrap your mind around that, and how do you personalize it, 
as you said? JZ: This ties back to the Showalter book. Maybe 
these "hysterias," if that is what they are, are the result of our 
turning anger inward instead of turning it against the system. 

We also know what happens to those who turn violent against 
the system, even if their violence is justified. The ones I know 
are either dead or in prison. I have a friend in prison who was 
once a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. I once 
asked what made him cross the line into violence, and he said, "I 
just had to do it. It was absolutely unavoidable." 

DJ: I asked the Tupacamarista what caused him to cross that 
line, and he said it was seeing the futility of civil resistance, and 
also seeing friends and fellow nonviolent activists murdered by 
state police. JZ: I've thought a lot about how I can best 
serve— and I realize that at least part of this answer is based on 
class privilege, on a wider set of options being open to me than 
to many others— but for right now I'm OK with my form of 
resistance, which is through cultural critique. For me, words 
are a better weapon to bring down the system than a gun 
would be. This is to say nothing of anybody else's choice of 
weapon, only my own. So that's why I do what I do. But my 
words are nothing but a weapon. 

DJ: Obviously the same is true for me. But even having made 
that decision for now, I still revisit the question. Every morning 
when I awake, for example, I ask myself whether I should write 
or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though 
I'm not sure that's right, because it's neither a lack of words nor 
activism that's killing salmon here in the Northwest, but the 
presence of dams. Anyone who knows anything about salmon 
knows the dams must go. Anyone who knows anything about 
politics knows the dams will stay. Scientists study, politicians and 
business people lie and delay, bureaucrats hold sham public input 
meetings, activists write letters and press releases, I 

Enemy of the State 


write books, and still the salmon die. It's a cozy relationship 
for all of us but the salmon. 

Or to take another example, I recently read that Gandhi 
wrote a letter to Hitler appealing to his conscience, and was 
amazed that it didn't work. 

JZ: Gandhi's failure doesn't mean words must always fail. He was 
obviously directing his words at the wrong place. Had he 
spoken more radical and effective words to his fellow Indians, 
things might be different there now. 

DJ: Right! Or if he was going to get involved in Germany, he 
should have written not to Hitler, who was obviously a lost cause, 
but instead perhaps an open letter to members of the 
resistance, letting them know they were not alone. 
JZ: Yes. 

DJ: But the question of violence is even more complex than 
we've made it so far. I know also we kill by inaction as surely 
by action. I came to that understanding a year ago. I had a goose 
who was killing chickens, and because I don't like to kill I didn't 
kill him. Finally he killed one too many, and so I killed him and 
ate him for dinner. Here's the point: that evening I was noticing 
my existential depression at having ended a life, when a friend 
pointed out that I was responsible that day not just for one 
death, but for many more. I was responsible as well for the 
chickens I allowed him to kill because I myself was not willing to 
stop him. 

JZ: I recently saw a quote by Exene Cervenkova, the lead 
singer in the band X, in which she said, "I've killed way more 
people than Kaczynski, because I've been paying a lot of taxes in 
the last fifteen years, and he hasn't." I was really struck by what 
an effective point that is. It reminds us we're all implicated. 

DJ: Let's go back to the notion of anti-authoritarianism. Can 
there be leaders without domination? 

JZ: I think persuasion isn't domination, as long as it lsrit manipula- 
tive, and as long as it's transparent. That's exactly how the Anarchist troops 
in the Spanish Civil War were led. Decisions were largely made 


Kunning un trnpniness 

by discussion, and once decisions were made then 
whomever was going to lead the troops decided how it was to be 
done. He was given authority on a case by case basis. This 
worked well for a time, but then as happens so often, so-called 
allies— in this case the Communist party and the Soviet Union, 
along with other conservative pressures in Spain— weeded out 
the anti-authoritarianism. The Anarchist units ended up 
becoming regular units in the army, and the passion for the 
revolution was sacrificed. 

This whole question of leadership, by the way, is the reason I 
stopped being an organizer. For a time I was in this sort of do- 
it-yourself union in San Francisco. It was opposed to all of the 
corrupt bureaucratic Organized Labor unions, and it was very 
Anarchist, though we didn't use that term. Our general tactic 
was to help everybody with all of their issues, all of their 
grievances, defend everything, dispute everything. We were 
following a theory prevalent in the '60s called "The Long March 
Through the Institutions," which held that the only way to 
topple the system is from within. I no longer believe that, of 
course. But the thing that finally dawned on me was that I 
wasn't doing the work for the right reason. I wasn't specifically 
trying to help this person get her job back, or that person 
change this policy— although I did help with these situations— 
so much as I was using the work as an avenue to overturn the 
institutions. I didn't say, "I'm doing this because I want to 
destroy the system," nor did I say, "My perspective goes way 
beyond this union," because I didn't think a lot of people 
could relate to that. They just wanted their jobs back, or higher 
wages, or whatever. And they came to me because I could help 
with that. I eventually realized that this lack of transparency was 
manipulative. So I had to stop. 

That's why now I depend more on critique, because I 
couldn't figure out how to not have a hidden agenda and still be 
an effective organizer. I don't run into that problem as a writer. 
No one is forced to read my stuff, and so we— the readers and I— 
enjoy a nonhierarchical relationship. 

DJ: So persuasion isn't domination? 

JZ: Not at all. Not so long as it's honest. 

D.T: What do you want from your work and your life? 

tnemy or ine biane 


JZ: I would like to see a face to face community, an intimate 
existence, where relations are not based on power, and thus 
not on division of labor. I would like to see an intact natural 
world, and I would like to live as a fully human being. I would 
like that for the people around me. 

DJ: Once again, how do we get there from here? 

JZ: I have no idea. It might be something as simple as 
everybody just staying home from work. Fuck it. Withdraw 
your energy. The system can't last without us. It needs to suck 
our energy. If people stop responding to the system, it's doomed. 

DJ: But if we stop responding, if we really decide not to go 
along, aren't we doomed also, because the system will destroy 

JZ: Right. It's not so easy. If it were that simple, people 
would just stay home, because it's such a drag to go through 
these miserable routines in an increasingly empty culture. But 
a question we always have to keep in mind is this: we're 
doomed, but in which way are we more doomed? I recently 
gave a talk at the University of Oregon in which I spoke on a 
lot of these topics. Near the end I said, "I know that a call 
for this sort of overturning of the system sounds ridiculous, 
but the only thing I can think of that's even more ridiculous 
is to just let the system keep on going." 

DJ: How do we know that all the alienation we see around us 
will lead to breakdown and rejuvenation? Why can't it just lead to 
more alienation? I know I've spent the last twenty years 
working as hard as I can to understand all this and extricate 
myself as much as I can from it. But I've no family to support. 
I've no wage job. Alienation can lead to understanding, but it 
can also lead to just passing on the damage to those around 

JZ: It's a question of how reversible the damage is. 
Sometimes— and I don't believe this is too much avoidance or 
denial— sometimes in history things are reversed in a moment 
when the physical world intrudes enough to knock us off 
balance. Vaneigem refers to a lovely little thing that gives me 
tremendous hope. The dogs in Pavlov's laboratory had been 
conditioned for hundreds of hours. They were fully 


Running On Emptiness 

trained and domesticated. Then there was a flood in the basement. And 
you know what happened? They forgot all of their training in the blink 
of an eye. We should be able to do at least that well. I am staking 
my life on it, and it is toward this end that I devote my work. 

Julie Mayeda was present for and contributed to this 




Also known as Heroic Abstraction, the New York School, Gesture 
Painting, and Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism was modernism's 
last, great assault on the dominant culture, the finale for painting as 
opposition or breakthrough. 

Abstraction and expressive power had hitherto been considered 
mutually exclusive, but by the end of 1947 a few artists had abandoned 
all traces of figural representation, and a definite, if widely varying 
tendency emerged. This paradoxical combination of elements found 
potent resolution in works as diverse as the allover "drip" canvases of 
Jackson Pollock, the black gestures of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, 
and the extremely flat, open color-field paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark 
Rothko, and especially Barnett Newman. All "so revolutionary," according 
to critic Irving Sandler (1978), "that all links to the past seemed 
severed. " 

In the late 1940s American art was dominated by a mediocre, aca- 
demic style, which only occasionally went so far as to incorporate suit- 
ably tamed aspects of no longer current European styles. Abstract 
Expressionism was very definitely not about comfortable evocations of 
beauty or harmony, and the radical break it represented was very distasteful 
to many. The more traditional painter Ethel Schwabacher, in 


Running on Emptiness 

her Hungry for Light memoir (1993) recalls the antipathy she felt to 
Pollock's "uneasiness" and "demolition quality"; characterizing his efforts 
as "storm voltage in the wake of which comes wild destruction." 

I find, particularly in his huge, signature-style paintings, a volcanic 
energy in Pollock that seeks to blow away this sham life, that points toward 
a Utopian renewal. People have been known to weep before the shimmering 
color rectangles of Rothko at his best. It is clear that the AE painters 
went all-out, united somehow in a common search for an absolute. As 
Frank O'Hara (1959) observed about them, "In the state of spiritual 
clarity there are no secrets. The effort to achieve such a state is 
monumental and agonizing." 

By 1950 or so, aided by sensationalist stories in Life magazine 
and elsewhere, awareness of this New York School moved from the 
art world to the general public. Not surprisingly, the conventional 
image was that of young, probably talentless know-nothings 
engaged in tantrums with oil paints. In fact, the arrival of abstract 
expressionism was the culmination of long, arduous evolution. A 
fair number of these painters were born within the two or three 
years prior to 1905 and had been painting for decades, mastering 
various styles and working through stages of formal development. It 
was at the peak of their powers and maturity that a number of 
artists, rather independently, achieved the AE breakthrough. When 
asked by a reporter how long it had taken him to paint a large work, 
Rothko replied (1961), "I am 57 years old and it took me all that 
time to paint this picture." 

Of course, a conformist media virtually guaranteed that the public 
response would be largely one of shock and anger. Probably the only 
surprise for the painters in question was the intensity of the hostility, 
and its duration. And how many could have been ready for an art that 
refused all fixed systems, ideologies, and pigeonholes — anything that might 
deny expressive possibilities? David and Cecile Shapiro (1990) noted that 
the new current was "programmatically divorced from anything in the 
entire history of art East or West." 

The AE attitude or orientation was captured, in its Utopian 

aspect, in this line by critic Harold Rosenberg (1948): "The modern 

painter is not inspired by anything visible, but only by something he 

hasn't seen yet." In the estimation of Kim Levin (1986), "During the 

Abstract Expressionism 


1950s, New York artists produced some of the most difficult — and 
violent — painting in the history of art. ..." 

And yet this American vanguard painting made New York the 
foremost source of aesthetic ideas and energies in the world, defini- 
tively surpassing Paris in this regard. Perhaps more importantly, there 
was an aspect of popular resonance — despite the orchestrated vilifica- 
tion — with Abstract Expressionist intransigence and non-conformism. 
In an era of mass-produced being and thinking, at least some fraction 
of society was inspired by the Action Painters. 

Europe, by the way, had its own versions of the new painting. The 
work of the Cobra Group of 1948-1950, so named for its locations in 
Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, was similar in many respects 
to what the intrepid Americans were up to. Equally dissatisfied with 
lifeless abstraction and depthless Socialist Realism, the Cobras, albeit 
briefly, were blazing new paths. Likewise, the Tachist movement in France 
had ties to New York and a defiant spirit of innovation and profound 
challenge; to quote Tachist painter Georges Mathieu (1958), "The 
question is posed: it does more than put the basis of Western civ- 
ilization at stake ..." 

In the U.S. 1950 saw production beginning in the areas of hydro- 
gen bombs and Miltown tranquilizers, as Cold War repression and 
consumerist emptiness began to define post-World War II society. In 
this depersonalized age the Abstract Expressionists put forth their des- 
perate assertions in favor of spontaneity, freedom, and discovery of self 
and context. It was their romantic anti-capitalist hope, complete with 
weaknesses and contradictions, that the values embodied in their art 
could supersede the artistic and transform society. Behind the energy of 
the immediate impulse was a rigorous way of life demanding total 
dedication. Pollock summed it up best, simply, when he said, "Painting 
is my whole life." Hard to imagine a starker contrast to the cowardly 
cynicism of today's postmodern art-world cadaver. 

For a radical art whose purpose was to venture into the unknown, 
to attempt painting as the yet indefinable, key components were risk, 
passion and adventure. For such intensity of purpose against such great 
odds, only extremists need apply. Little wonder that even before 1950 
Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, leading AE sculptor, 
had already suffered serious depression or nervous collapses. 


Running on Emptiness 

Arshile Gorky had hanged himself in 1948; Pollock, following years of 
torturous alcoholism, killed himself in a drunken car crash in 1956; 
Franz Kline drank himself to death in 1962; Smith died in a car crash 
in 1965, and Rothko slashed his arms and died in his studio in 1970. 
In fact, alcoholism, if not madness, haunted most of the twenty or so 
most visible New York painters of this movement. April Kingsley (1 992) 
judged that "Not since the Renaissance has there been a group of 
artists whose real lives have been so fascinating." Fascinating may be too 
gentle a word. 

Malcolm Lowry once said, "The real cause of alcoholism is the 
complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you." The Abstract 
Expressionists were acutely aware of that sterility and believed that art 
should reveal and challenge the barrenness and oppression of modern 
capitalist society. Sam Francis (1959) rendered this with a poetic preci- 
sion: "What we want is to make something that fills utterly the sight 
and can't be used to make life only bearable." 

A large number of the Action painters had radical credentials. 
Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt, 
among others, made persistently anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist 
statements. David and Cecile Shapiro (1977) offered this formulation: 
their politics might best be described as "anarchist or nihilist, both 
antipodes of authoritarianism, in its drive to jettison rules, tradition, 
order, and values." Clearly, there was no accommodation with the pre- 
vailing political and social ethos. Newman, Rothko, and Adolph Got- 
tlieb were, in fact, life-long anarchists; once when asked about his, Rothko 
answered, "What else?" 

Cubism and surrealism were influences in the development of the 
painters who became the New York School, but fundamentals of the 
two major twentieth century orientations were rejected for characteris- 
tically AE reasons. At base, the new painters emphasized (in addition to 
expressiveness) flatness and literalness. As early as 1943, in a group New 
York Times statement, they declared, "We are for flat forms because they 
destroy illusion and reveal the truth." More specifically, they 
condemned surrealism, still reigning in modern art at the time of the 
statement, for its very conservative representationalism. 

Abstract Expressionism, despite its abstraction, upheld concrete- 
ness. Action paintings do not "stand for" anything outside themselves, 

Abstract Expressionism 


and in the autonomy of the artistic act imply an autonomy in the 
world. The struggle to overcome mediation and non-transparency aes- 
thetically looks past the goal of personal wholeness to that of the social 
order. Many of these "Irascibles" (a Life magazine term) were attempt- 
ing, by the late 1940s, "to eliminate all traces of existing symbol systems." 
Frank O'Hara (1959) understood their aim as "a oneness which has no 
need for the mediation of metaphor or symbol. " 

The action in the picture became its own representation, and paintings 
tried to convey their full meaning through direct sensation. Clifford Still, 
Rothko, Newman and others used color to evoke the sublime directly. A 
related method involved an unprecedented use of black as a color, for its 
lack of ambiguity and potential expressive force; black and white 
paintings were often used to try new approaches, in stark, non-chromatic 

Although certainly not new to art, the use of the primitive was a 
powerful element in much Action painting, as suggested by "Art has 
been in decadence since the caveman," a sentiment from Miro. These 
painters were interested in a spirit of communion with the primitive, 
heeding the call of David Smith, sculptor and radical, for a "return to 
origins, before purities were befouled by words." But in drawing from 
this source, one sees a contradiction: the primitive represented not 
only optimism and community, but also a state of brutality, helpless- 
ness, and fear of nature. We now understand this ambivalence to have 
been unnecessary, given the distinctly positive view that recent decades 
of scholarship have disclosed of life in pre -civilization. 

Art is predicated on its formal strategies and development. Even 
an art that sought to embody impulses which are not primarily aes- 
thetic finds its success or failure, at bottom, in formal terms. Robert 
Motherwell gave his reason for this in a 1944 talk, the estimation that 
"so long as modern society is dominated by the love of property — and 
it will be, so long as property is the only source of freedom — the artist 
has no alternative to formalism." 

One obvious aspect of this, as already noted in passing, is the 
rejection of representation. The Abstract Expressionists had come to 
the conclusion that through thousands of years of exposure, represen- 
tational images were worn out. As Rothko (1958) disclosed, " a time 
came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it." 


Running on Emptiness 

To come more to the heart of the formal means involved, it is plausible 
to assert not only that these works were new in the history of Western 
civilization, but that they are the final evolution of painting. There is an 
extreme, reductivist purification underlying them, prompting some to 
refer to the "abolitionist" nature of Abstract Expressionism. 

In their quest for critical revelation and the visionary, the Action 
painters, in their varying styles, went after everything that was dispen- 
sable and rejected it. Harold Rosenberg (1972) referred to their con- 
ceptions of painting as "a kind of marathon of deletion." They were 
going for broke, throwing out virtually every last convention in art to 
get to the irreducible essentials. 

In a reference to Cezanne's famous still lives that were so influen- 
tial for modern art, Rosenberg had noted earlier (1959), "the apples weren't 
swept off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space 
and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the 
act of painting." This was the grand gesture of those who fought 
desperately for a coherence possessed of supra-aesthetic potency, in the 
face of an increasingly alienated and divided society. Small wonder that 
few could follow the extremist paths of such aesthetic dialecticians. 

The turbulent lives of the Abstract Expressionists constitute one 
aspect of this demanding, ground-breaking project, and the limitations 
of the aesthetic itself, a subject beyond the scope of this offering, is 
another, more general question. It becomes hard to resist concluding, 
let me concede, that the heroic AE enterprise was destined to be a dead 
end, inspiring to some, but unrealizable. Max Horkheimer (1959) 
was referring to the overreachings of Abstract Expressionism when he 
judged, sadly, "As it becomes coherent in itself, it also becomes 
mute, and that it requires commentary is proof of that fact." 

In discarding the non-essentials to get at new heights of expressive 
coherence, it was Jackson Pollock who went furthest. He realized how 
little was left to work with and yet persisted in trying to force art to 
make good on its never-delivered promise of revelation, to show us truth 
that would truly make a difference. 

Pollock's huge "drip" or poured canvases — their very size a rebuff 
to market considerations — are unequalled in their immediacy, wildness 

Abstract Expressionism 


and epic qualities. Continually more inventive and radical, his project, 
his life, was that of a total engagement of the spirit in the expression of 

The poured technique, arrived at in 1947, was a daring formal 
solution of dripping or even throwing paint in long, looping rhythms. 
Michael Fried (1965) felt that Pollock had "managed to free line from 
its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task 

of describing or bounding shapes and figures He advanced past 

symbols, shapes and forms altogether, employing line as trajectory rather 
than as a form-defining device. Not surprisingly, this breakthrough was 
seen by not a few as the destruction of art. 

Allan Kaprow in 1958, two years after Pollock's drunken end, referred 
to him as "the embodiment of our ambition for absolute liberation and 
a secretly cherished wish to overturn old tables of crockery and flat 
champagne." A reminiscence of his work by Paul Jenkins (1985) 
declared, "He awakens us like a flash of light, and his presence was 
something that had gone through fire and existed in fire. ..." 

There is often a violent, terrible energy to Pollock's paintings 
which at times have a raw, unfinished feel to them. In fact, he tried 
precisely to move beyond beauty, beyond the usual pictorial ambition. 
The "well-made" picture, the notion of painting as some kind of haute 
cuisine was just what he and the other Abstract Expressionists were out 
to demolish. There was an undeniable sense of freedom to all this, an 
exhilaration. At times it was "so delicious," recalled Willem DeKoon- 
ing. "Like children we broke all the windows." 

And this iconoclastic nihilism, again, was the bane of many critics. 
Hilton Kramer, for instance, never tired of railing against Pollock's "anar- 
chic" impulses, his "anarchic" sensibilities, the "vehemence of his anarchic 
energy, " etc. (e.g. 1957). Even some of his fellow Action painters could be 
shocked by the violence of Pollock's approach. Hans Hoffman, older and a 
significant influence on the New York School in general, visited Pollock's 
studio and was appalled by the disorder he found there. Picking up a dried- 
out brush that had stuck to a palette, he said, "With this you could kill a 
man." Jackson's reply was "That's the point." 

An earlier encounter with Hoffmann, as recounted by Lee Krasner, 
Pollock's wife and a considerable painter in her own right, is also 


Running on Emptiness 

I brought Hoffmann up to meet Pollock for the first time and Hoff- 
mann said, after looking at his work, "You do not work from 
nature." Pollock's answer was, "I am nature." 

This seemingly bombastic statement had less to do, I would say, 
with megalomania than with Pollock's rejection of the usual expedient 
of symbolizing nature. Pollock was very much interested in nature all 
the way along, and the rhythms of nature are readily recognized in 
many of his pictures. 

The movement, energy, and surprise of Pollock's major (1947-50) 
works tend to make the eye of the viewer move constantly and thus 
apprehend the image as a whole. A universal dimension is suggested, 
in fact, an evocation of the totality precisely because nothing is repre- 
sented. Primal vitality, dionysiac energy testify to how much he longed 
"to escape from American ordinariness, its lure of banality." Pollock 
displayed elements of an "apocalyptic mentality, of a social contract 
with a future world and, simultaneously, a falling one," in the words of 
Donald Kuspit (1979, 1980). His Utopian vision is also about origins, 
about what has disappeared from the world, and is thus "partly a 
project of retrieval" (T..T. Clark 1990). The promise of the past as well 
as of the future — "memories arrested in space," his phrase — is what 
he tried to convey, and what I think is told best by the sense of unlimited 
freedom of his poured paintings. Pollock offers, as David Anfan 
(1990) phrased it very well, "a foretaste of the reign of wonder." 

As compared to Pollock's line and energy, Mark Rothko utilized fields 
of color and repose; aside from their commitment to total abstraction, the 
two are stylistic opposites. But Rothko, in another approach to shared 
values, made almost as large a contribution to pictorial heresy as his 
slightly younger colleague. Early on, around 1945, he made some of his 
strongest, defining statements for emerging Abstract Expressionism and 
in time reached such levels of the sublime in painting as to go, according 
to Dore Ashton (1958), "almost beyond the reach of the word." 

Two or three centrally aligned rectangles, floating in layers of vibrant 
light and color, were a characteristic picture, by which he gave materiality 
to his redemptive vision. A secret, inner harmony underlies these works, 
a pulsating presence, what he termed "the impact of the 

Abstract Expressionism 


unequivocal." He aimed at a distilled content that, like that of other 
Action painters, had jettisoned such components as recognizable subject 
matter, spatial illusion, complex formal relationships, even titles. 

It was out of fear of being assimilated by society that Rothko purged 
his art of any precise images. As he wrote in 1947, "The familiar 
identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite 
associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect 
of our environment." The "look" of the everyday only gets in the way 
of seeing what is really there and what really could be there. 

Like his friends Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, Rothko was 
something of an absolutist, morally and politically. He was also an 
anarchist during his entire adult life, and the anti-authoritarian foun- 
dation of his outlook was always present. This comes through even in a 
remark about the size of paintings, in favor of big canvases: 
"However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something 
you command. " 

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, he listened to IWW orators and 
once heard Emma Goldman speak. His ill-fated Seagram murals experi- 
ence in the late 1950s is a colorful testimony to an anarchist, anti -com- 
modity, and anti-art world perspective. Rothko accepted a commission 
to paint several murals for the restaurant in the New York headquarters 
of the Seagram liquor corporation, but later changed his mind on the 
subject of adorning space mainly frequented by a ruling class clientele. 
He had hoped "to paint something that would ruin the appetite of 
every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. " Reconsidering the 
soundness of this tactic, as Breslin (1993) tells it, he returned the com- 
mission in disgust, raging that "Anybody who will eat that kind of food 
for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine." 

Rothko's paintings often evoke strongly emotional responses, 
including great sadness. It was a mark of his courage to struggle so 
long and so well with his glowing color fields, against the sterility of 
society and encroaching depression and despair. An almost obsessional 
darkness began to creep into his vision by 1957, and his late works, largely 
grey negativities, move toward a dimming invisibility. 

Barnett Newman was one of the main whipping boys of Abstract 


Running on Emptiness 

When in 1950 he first showed his remarkably simple color-field 
paintings, generally consisting of a huge expanse of one color divided 
by a couple of thin vertical stripes, even his outlaw colleagues rejected 
them. Many consider his works to be the most radical of all Abstract 
Expressionist art. 

A Newman picture overwhelms the eye with one main color, pro- 
viding the immediate sensation of an all-pervading forcefulness. Newman's 
thrust was the primal unity, wholeness, harmony between humanity and 
nature, and the potential greatness of the human spirit. 

He strove for the highest in discourse and momentous meaning, and 
while the means were drastically simplified, content was amplified. In a 
July 1950 letter from Still, one of his few supporters at the time, the 
"magnitude" and "intensity" of Newman's color were linked to a total 
rejection of contemporary culture and those behind it. In response to the 
question of what his art could mean to the world, he pointed to a 
canvas from his inaugural 1950 exhibition and said, "You know, that 
painting, if read correctly, means the end of the capitalist system!" 

Newman was a Utopian primitivist who advocated a return to the 
first, communal forms of human society. He upheld a vision of life 
based on voluntary cooperation, free of antagonism and repression. Never 
sympathetic to the Communist Party, from the 1920s he was an active 
anarchist, and taught himself Yiddish in order to read the only anarchist 
newspaper then available in New York. In 1933 Newman ran for mayor 
of New York on a platform of free housing, public galleries and 
orchestra spaces, the closing of streets to private automobiles, and 
playgrounds for adults. 

Looking back at Abstract Expressionism (1966), he claimed that 
"we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not 
only dead but had never existed." But Newman was definitely influ- 
enced, as were 1 9th century figures like Pisarro and Seurat, by 
Kropotkin's ideas of artistic autonomy and mutualist spontaneity. Indeed, in 
the late 1 960s, not long before he died, he persuaded a publisher who 
wanted to bring out a book of Newman's own collected writings to instead 
publish Kropotkin's Memoirs of a, Revolutionist, for which he wrote a 

Barnett Newman's friend and fellow anarchist Clyfford Still drew 
less on Kropotkin's critique of society, than from Bakunin's demand for 

Abstract Expressionism 


its violent abolition. In fact, the uncompromising vehemence and 
intensity of his approach almost make Newman look like a genial 

For starters, no other artist had ever loathed the art world as a system 
with such an undying passion. Critics were "venomous scribblers," 
galleries were "brothels," the Museum of Modern Art in particular was a 
"gas chamber." He rejected all constraints and demanded that art work 
assume the most momentous of empancipatory responsibilities. 

His style was that of rough and craggy fields of color, usually sug- 
gesting turbulence and cataclysm. These generally large, raw pictures 
refused comfortable confinement within edges. He wrote in 1963 that 
"to be stopped by a frame's edge was intolerable; a Euclidean prison 
had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated. ..." 

His all-or-nothing outlook placed enormous faith in the inherent 
autonomy of engage art as an instrument of freedom. Blake and Nietzche 
were influences; even more so he emphasized the reassertion of human 
beginnings to show the way toward clearing away the weight of accumu- 
lated imprisonment. Donald Kuspit (1977) pondered "this grand primitivist 
negation, this grand return to origins" in the service of a radical freedom, 
and understood its underlying affirmation. 

Still rejected what he called the "totalitarian hegemony" of art's 
history. The "security' that comes from tradition, he wrote in 1952, is 
"an illusion, banal, and without courage." The alienated, technological 
essence of the Bauhaus school, "I rejected out of hand as an abdication 
to systems of power and mass control with their underpinnings of 
political and economic reactionary theses. ..." His critical acumen 
and acerbic style are, I think, worth quoting further in this regard: 

The manifestoes and gestures of the Cubists, the Fauves, the 
Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists or Expressionists were only evidence that 
the Black Mass was but a pathetic homage to that which it often 
presumed to mock. And the Bauhaus herded them briskly into a cool, 
universal Buchenwald. All the devices were at hand, and all the 
devices had failed to emancipate. 

For the severe Still, painting was really a life and death affair on 
both personal and social levels; its potential was boundless. He 


Running on Emptiness 

reflected in 1963 on his role in the 1940s: "I had made it clear that a 
single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its 
potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in 
twenty centuries of apologies and devices for subjugation." As he had 
said in 1952, "We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illus- 
trating outworn myths or contemporary alibis." 

If Abstract Expressionism had an organizer, it was the articulate 
internationalist, Robert Motherwell. Somewhat like Barnett Newman, 
he facilitated and promoted the movement and its basic orientation. He 
saw at its heart "a rejection of nearly everything that seems to interest nearly 
everyone, a protest against what goes on and the art that supports it" 
(1950), and was most impressed by "the radiance and subtlety with 
which this attitude of protest is expressed." 

He found the whole point of existence, in fact, to be opposing the 
established order, but his work, while strongly radiant, does not strike 
one as subtle. For 30 years he painted his Elegies to the Spanish Republic: 
thick, black and brooding forms, rough-edged, dripping and full of 
emotional intensity. He executed over 140 pictures in this long series of 
a similar black and white style, possessing inescapable physical presence 
and urgency. As with so many other Action painters, he dared to 
drastically simplify the number of elements and thereby achieved a greatly 
magnified expressive power. 

Motherwell wrote in 1948 of a projected Abstract Expressionist 
goal of "ridding us of the glory of conquerors and politicos," of "defending 
[human] values with intelligence and ingenuity against the property -loving 
world." More specifically, he saw the new school as deeply critical of 
standardization and instrumentalism, later sadly concluding (1977) 
that "Western man, in choosing centuries ago to exploit nature 
rather than marry her, has doomed himself ... with an industrial 
technology" out of his control. "One can only guess," he had written 
in 1959, "if there were something more deeply and humanly inspiring, at 
what we might be, what all mankind might be capable of" 

Franz Kline, Willem deKooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph 
Gottlieb, Phillip Guston, so many important others, too many for 
even brief commentary here. The spirit of inspired antagonism of that 
whole heroic and diverse group was perhaps best captured in 1 949 by 

Abstract Expressionism 


William Baziotes: "when the demagogues of art call on you to make 
the social art, the intelligible art, the good art — spit on them and go 
back to your dreams. " 

After a brief period of critical success and Just as some of its parti- 
sans were finally able to sell a few paintings and wonder if they were 
selling out, by the late '50s, Abstract Expressionism was on the wane. 
The Italian critic Marco Valsecchi wrote in 1950 of its basis in "the 
necessity of surviving as individuals without being crushed by the con- 
formism of industrialized life," and that AE paintings give the sense of 
"witnessing a shipwreck and the fight for survival." Very similar was 
Gottlieb's 1963 statement, "Everything seemed hopeless and we had 
nothing to lose, so that in a sense we were like people condemned to 
life imprisonment who make a dash for freedom. " 

Though based on resistance and refusal, their desperate initiative 
was widely misunderstood and steadily assimilated into the prevailing 
cultural, political, and social ethos. Nonetheless, Action painting was 
not only the evident end of formal development in art, it was the 
highest point, in its sphere, of the whole modernist project. And because of 
what David Craven (1990) recognized as its "unequivocal opposition to 
scientism, technologism, and wage labour alienation," Abstract 
Expressionism superseded the non-radical Enlightenment belief in 
progress usually found near the heart of modernism. 

By the late '50s, Pop Art, which represents a sweeping transition 
from modernism to postmodernism, was in full swing. Martha Rosier 
(1981) perceived the postmodern renunciation of purity and celebra- 
tion of pluralism as "a pretend triumph of egalitarian tolerance." At 
base, and seen most clearly in Pop Art, it simply reflects the enormous 
consequences of mounting post-war commodity production and con- 
sumption. Shallow, banal, indiscriminate, Pop Art exalts the standard- 
ized and makes no demand upon the viewer except his or her money. It 
has exactly nothing of the inner necessity or passionately sought 
authenticity of its immediate artistic predecessor. The triumph of Pop 
Art over Abstract Expressionism is inseparable from "the feeling of 
bankruptcy that permeates our art and culture," that Kim Levin 
referred to in 1986. 

True to the postmodern canon, Pop Art renounces any grasp of 
the whole, and in so doing ends up with just what the system gives it. 


Running On Emptiness 

As Octavio Paz saw in 1973, Pop Art is not a figure in a vision, but a 
mannequin in a department store. The commercial images of Warhol 
and the rest are unmistakably tied to the oppressive set-up whose 
understanding it rules out. It is their objective of totality that gave Action 
painting, according to T.J. Clark (1990), both its fierceness and its 
sensuousness. While the likes of Pop Art come and go as trivial con- 
sumption, the valiant, life-affirming effort of Abstract Expressionism will 
endure and inspire. 




Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying 
ascendancy, embodying so well capital's impoverishing penetration of 
every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of 
unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno- 
capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly 
deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must 
be if it is to succeed. 

With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well 
be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For 
the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, crit- 
ical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be 
reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfee- 
bling ethos of meaninglessness and indifference came to predominate 
may still be of some interest. 

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who 
looks at everything critically ... who does not take any principle for 
granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the 
same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes 
from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked 
the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of 


Running On Emptiness 

During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters 
became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a 
growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really 
counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern 
civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of 
meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and 
irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life. 

Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the 
history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century 
became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern 
clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period — so 
widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, 
authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and 
the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is 
a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. 
According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity's "only truly 
universal inheritance to humankind." 

That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the 
movement of the 1 960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached 
its peak. As Utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness 
spread. By the '80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth 
were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, 
the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn't care less." 

With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and 
empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens' suicide rate 
has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers 
what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the pop- 
ulation in general experiences its life -world as more and more of a vacuum 
in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this 

Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon col- 
lapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the 
hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a 
consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a 
superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause. 

A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction 

The Age of Nihilism 


of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of 
cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it 
was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the 
substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process inti- 
mately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without 
technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the 
deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism, 

With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of 
technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot 
be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, 
ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy 
regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the 
promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in 
a recent TV commercial: "I've got gigabytes. I've got megabytes. I'm 
voice-mailed. I'm e-mailed. I surf the Net. I'm on the Web. I am Cyber- 
Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?" 

A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. 
Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them 
irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some 
moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are 
shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery 
and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself. 

When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not 
an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism 
is technological fatalism ("There's nothing we can do about it"), 
further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As 
Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale 
of domination itself. " 

Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing 
fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienat- 
ing. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns 
all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp 
the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are 
part of. Domination and nihilism's crisis of meaning are inseparably 

For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. 


Running On Emptiness 

Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a 
mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, 
having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. 
Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology's effective rule. 
In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system 
can be mitigated, or deferred. 

Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, 
and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between 
technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information 
explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-enter- 
tainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diver- 
sions to a society of relentless consumerism. 

"Infotainment" and Mc Journalism are the latest pop culture prod- 
ucts of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about 
reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising 
solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among 
many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1 990s despite an 
enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely 
enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors. 

In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a 
function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement 
society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of non- 
mediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. 
Massif ied culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally 
enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass 
turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy. 

The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in 
the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the 
symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing 
their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just 
the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their 
failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to 
containment and control. 

To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set 
up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human 
life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer 

The Age of Nihilism 


society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We 
are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion — virtual life 
in a virtual reality . 

Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any 
sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality's 
merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodermsm's 
fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be 
called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus 
nihilism's essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too 
many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of 
the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded m the incapacity to 
specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about. 

Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance 
to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, 
mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is 
that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the 
debased norm. 

Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an 
endlessly mampulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor 
intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation 
as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to 
Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There." 

Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the 
basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate 
before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than 
critique-less postmodernism double talk — an ideology of acquiescence. 

Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the 
universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the 
most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity 
it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology's universalizing 
Midas touch. 

Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of 
boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And 

just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information 

1 14 

Running OnEmptiness 

and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities 
provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is 
essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the 
KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the sup- 
pression of human rights protesters there in 1989. 

"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the 
dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless 
yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified exis- 
tence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. 
Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the 
McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely 
defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of 
life becomes that of consumer behavior — including, it should be noted, 
voting and recycling. 

Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from 
the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology 
have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from 
the closed system except by the elimination of that system. 

Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to para- 
phrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind Usthat cultural radicalism, 
which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system 
rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alien- 
ation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well 
as the reality of high-tech barbarism. 

Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that 
has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now 
very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its 
long, dark night. 




"Yeah, the critique is impressive and everything, but just how might 
we actually get from this ghastly world to some healed, whole existence?" 

I think we should not doubt that such a journey is possible, nor 
that the explosion necessary to begin it may be approaching. 

The thought of the dominant culture has, of course, always told us 
that alienated life is inescapable. In fact, culture or civilization itself 
expresses this essential dogma: the civilizing process, as Freud noted, is the 
forcible trading of a free, natural life for one of unceasing repression. 

Today culture is in a dispirited, used-up state wherever one looks. 
More important than the entropy afflicting the logic of culture, however, is 
what seems to be the active, if inchoate resistance to it. This is the ray 
of hope that disturbs the otherwise all-too-depressing race we witness 
to determine whether total alienation or the destruction of the biomass 
will happen first. 

People are being stretched and beaten on the rack of everyday 
emptiness, and the spell of civilization is fading. Lasch referred to a near- 
universal rage abroad in society, just under the surface. It is growing and 
its symptoms are legion, amounting to a refusal to leave this earth 


Running on Emptiness 

Adorno asked, "What would happiness be that was not measured by 
the immeasurable grief at what is?" Certainly, the condition of life has 
become nightmarish enough to justify such a question, and 
perhaps also to suggest that something started to go deeply wrong a 
very long time back. At least it ought to be demonstrating, moving on 
toward specifics, that the means of reproducing the prevailing Death 
Ship (e.g. its technology) cannot be used to fashion a liberated world. 

Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler wondered, "What is 'common' about 
the common life? What if some genius were to do with 'common life' 
what Einstein did with 'matter'? Finding its energetics, uncovering its 
radiance." Of course, we must all be that "Einstein," which is exactly 
what will unleash a creative energy sufficient to utterly refashion the 
conditions of human existence. Ten thousand years of captivity and 
darkness, to paraphrase Vaneigem, will not withstand ten days of full- 
out revolution, which will include the simultaneous reconstruction of 
our inner selves. Who doesn't hate modern life? Can what condition- 
ing that remains survive such an explosion of life, one that ruthlessly 
removes the sources of such conditioning? 

We are obviously being held hostage by capital and its technology, 
made to feel dependent, even helpless, by the sheer weight of it all, the 
massive inertia of centuries of alienated categories, patterns, values. What 
could be dispensed with immediately? Borders, governments, hierarchy, 
what else? How fast could more deep-seated forms of authority and sepa- 
ration be dissolved, such as that of division of labor? I assert, and not, I 
hope, in the spirit of wishing to derive blueprints from abstract principle, 
that I can see no ultimate freedom or wholeness without the dissolution of 
the inherent power of specialists of every kind. 

Many say that millions would die if the present techno-global 
fealty to work and the commodity were scrapped. But this overlooks 
many potentialities. For example, consider the vast numbers of people 
who would be freed from manipulative, parasitic, destructive pursuits 
for those of creativity, health, and liberty. At present, in fact, very few 
contribute in any way to satisfying authentic needs. 

Transporting food thousands of miles, not an atypical pursuit today, 
is an instance of pointless activity, as is producing countless tons of 
herbicide and pesticide poisons. The picture of humanity starving if a 
transformation were attempted may be brought into perspective by 

Postscript to Future Primitive 


reference to a few other agricultural specifics, of a more positive 
nature. It is perfectly feasible, generally speaking, that we grow our 
own food. There are simple approaches, involving no division of labor, 
to large yields in small spaces. 

Agriculture itself must be overcome, as domestication, and because it 
removes more organic matter from the soil than it puts back. Perma- 
culture is a technique that seems to attempt an agriculture that devel- 
ops or reproduces itself and thus tends toward nature and away from 
domestication. It is one example of promising interim ways to survive 
while moving away from civilization. Cultivation within the cities is 
another aspect of practical transition, and a further step toward super- 
seding domestication would be a more or less random propagation of 
plants, a la Johnny Appleseed. 

Regarding urban life, any steps toward autonomy and self-help 
should be realized, beginning now, so that cities may be all the more 
quickly abandoned later. Created out of capital's need to centralize 
control of property transactions, religion, and political domination, cities 
remain as extended life-destroying monuments to the same basic needs 
of capital. Something on the order of what we know now as museums might 
be a good idea so that post -upheaval generations could know how grotesque 
our species' existence became. Moveable celebration sites may by the 
nearest configuration to cities that disalienated life will express. 

Along with the movement out of cities, paralleling it, one might 
likely see a movement from colder climes to warmer ones. The heating 
of living space in northern areas constitutes an absurd effort of energy, 
resources, and time. When humans become once again intimate with 
the earth, healthier and more robust, these zones would probably be peopled 
again, in altogether different ways. 

As for population itself, its growth is no more a natural or neutral 
phenomenon than is technology. When life is fatally out of balance, 
the urge to reproduce appears as compensation for impoverishment on 
various levels. In the absence of such impoverishment, as with the non- 
civilized gatherer-hunters surviving today, population levels would be 
relatively quite low. 

Enrico Guidoni pointed out that architectural structures necessarily 
reveal a great deal about their social context. Similarly, the isolation and 
sterility of shelter in class society is hardly accidental, and deserves 


Running on Emptiness 

to be scrapped in toto. Rudofsky's Architecture Without Architects deals 
with some examples of shelter not produced by specialists, but by 
spontaneous and evolving communal activity. Imagine the inviting richness 
of dwellings, each unique not mass produced, and a part of a serene 
mutuality that one might expect to emerge from the collapse of boundaries 
and artificial scarcities, material and emotional. 

Probably "health" in a new world will be a matter even less recog- 
nizable that the question of shelter. The dehumanized industrial "med- 
icine" of today is totally complicitous with the overall processes of society 
which rob us of life and vitality. Of countless examples of the criminality 
of the present, direct profiting from human misery must rank near the 
top. Alternative healing practices are already challenging the dominant 
mode, but the only real solution is the abolition of a setup that by its 
very nature spawns an incredible range of physical and psychic 
immiseration. From Reich to Mailer, for example, cancer is recognized 
as the growth of a general madness blocked and denied. Before civilization 
disease was generally nonexistent. How could it have been otherwise? 
Where else do degenerative and infectious diseases, emotional maladies, 
and all the rest issue if not from work, toxicity, cities, estrangement, fear, 
unfulfilled lives — the whole canvas of damaged, alienated reality? 
Destroying the sources will eradicate the suffering. Minor exigencies 
would be treated by herbs and the like, not to mention a diet of pure, non- 
processed food. 

It seems evident that industrialization and the factories could not 
be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must 
be pursued with all the vigor behind the rush of break-out. Such 
enslavement of people and nature must disappear forever, so that words 
like production and economy will have no meaning. A graffito from 
the rising in France in '68 was simply "Quick!" Those partisans apparently 
realized the need to move rapidly forward all the way, with no 
temporizing or compromise with the old world. Half a revolution 
would only preserve domination and cement its hold over us. 

A qualitatively different life would entail abolishing exchange, in every 
form, in favor of the gift and the spirit of play. Instead of the coercion of 
work — and how much of the present could continue without precisely that 
coercion? — an existence without constraints is an immediate, central 
objective. Unfettered pleasure, creative endeavor 

Postscript to Future Primitive 


along the lines of Fourier: according to the passions of the individual 
and in a context of complete equality. 

What would we keep? "Labor-saving devices?" Unless they involve 
no division of labor (e.g. a lever or incline), this concept is a fiction; behind 
the "saving" is hidden the congealed drudgery of many and the despoliation 
of the natural world. As the Parisian group Interrogations put it: 
"Today's riches are not human riches; they are riches for capitalism 
which correspond to a need to sell and stupefy. The products we 
manufacture, distribute, and administer are the material expressions of 
our alienation. " 

Every kind of fear and doubt is cultivated against the prospect or 
possibility of transforming life, including the moment of its beginning. 
"Wouldn't revolt mean mayhem, hoarding, survivalist violence, etc.?" 
But popular uprisings seem to embody strong feelings of joy, unity, and 
generosity. Considering the most recent U.S. examples, the urban 
insurrections of the '60s, New York City '77 , and Los Angeles '92 — 
one is struck by the spontaneous sharing, the sharp drop in interracial 
violence and violence against women, and general sense of festival. 

Our biggest obstacle lies in forgetting the primacy of the negative. 
Hesitation, peaceful coexistence — this deficiency of desire will prove fatal 
if allowed to be ascendant. The truly humanitarian and pacific impulse is 
that which is committed to relentlessly destroying the malignant dynamic 
known as civilization, including its roots. Time is a stunting, confining 
imposition of culture, naming is a domination — like counting, an aspect 
of the distancing of language. In the horrible extremity of today we can 
see the need to return all the way to the earth, to the multi-sensual 
intimacy of nature that obtained before symbolization made living a reified, 
separated caricature of itself. 

Enchantment might be savored even more brightly this time, for 
knowing what our ancestors didn't realize must be avoided. 

Tearing up the concrete could begin immediately, as my late friend 
Bob Brubaker once counseled. Literally, under the pavement, it's the 



Running On Emptiness 


A pervasive sense of loss and unease envelops us, a cultural sadness 
that can justly be compared to the individual who suffers a personal 

A hyper-technologized late capitalism is steadily effacing the living 
texture of existence, as the world's biggest die-off in 50 million years 
proceeds apace: 50,000 plant and animal species disappear each year 
(World Wildlife Fund, 1996). 

Our grieving takes the form of postmodern exhaustion, with its 
wasting diet of an anxious, ever-shifting relativism, and that attachment to 
surface that fears connecting with the fact of staggering loss. The fatal 
emptiness of ironized consumerism is marked by loss of energy, difficulty 
in concentrating, feelings of apathy, social withdrawal: precisely those 
enumerated in the psychological literature of mourning. 

The falsity of postmodernism consists in its denial of loss, the refusal to 
mourn. Devoid of hope or vision for the future, the reigning Zeitgeist also 
cuts off, very explicitly, an understanding of what has happened and why. 
There is a ban on thinking about origins, which is companion to an 
insistence on the superficial, the fleeting, the ungrounded. 

Parallels between individual grief and a desolate, grieving common 


sphere are often striking. Consider the following from therapist Kenneth 
Doka (1989): "Disenfranchised grief can be defined as the grief that 
persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly 
acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported." Denial on an 
individual level provides an inescapable metaphor for denial at large; 
personal denial, so often thoroughly understandable, introduces the 
question of refusal to come to grips with the crisis occurring at every 

Ushering in the millennium are voices whose trademark is opposi- 
tion to narrative itself, escape from any kind of closure. The modernist 
project at least made room for the apocalyptic; now we are expected to 
hover forever — as if much of even survival seems likely — in a world of 
surfaces and simulation that ensure the "erasure" of the real world and 
the dispersal of both the self and the social. Baudrillard is of course 
emblematic of the "end of the end," based on his prefigured "extermination 
of meaning." 

We may turn again to the psychological literature for apt descriptive 
points. Deutsch (1937) examined the absence of expressions of grief that 
occur following some bereavements and considered this a defensive attempt 
of the ego to preserve itself in the face of overwhelming anxiety. Fenichel 
(1945) observed that grief is at first experienced only in very small doses; if 
it were released full-strength, the subject would feel overwhelming despair. 
Similarly, Grimspoon (1964) noted that "people cannot risk being 
overwhelmed by the anxiety which might accompany a full cognitive and 
affective grasp of the present world situation and its implications for the 

With these counsels and cautions in mind, it is nonetheless 
obvious that loss must be faced. All the more so in the realm of social 
existence, where in distinction to, say, the death of a loved one, a crisis of 
monumental proportions might be turned toward a transformative solution, 
if no longer denied. 

Repression, most clearly and presently practiced via postmodern 
fragmentation and superficiality, does not extinguish the problem. "The 
repressed," according to Bollas (1995) "signifies the preserved: hidden away 
in the organized tensions of the unconscious, wishes and their memories are 
ceaselessly struggling to find some way into gratification in the present — 
desire refuses annihilation. " 


Running On Emptiness 

Grief is the thwarting and deadening of desire and very much resembles 
depression; in fact, many depressions are precipitated by losses (Klerman, 
1981). Both grief and depression may have anger at their root; consider, for 
example, the cultural association of black with grief and mourning and with 
anger, as in "black rage." 

Traditionally, grief has been seen as giving rise to cancer. A con- 
temporary variation of this thesis is Norman Mailer's notion that 
cancer is the unhealthiness of a deranged society, turned inward, bridging 
the personal and public spheres. Again, a likely connection among grief, 
depression, and anger, and testimony, I think, to massive repression. Signs 
abound concerning weakening immune defenses; along with increasing 
material toxins, there seems to be an rising level of grief and its 
concomitants. When meaning and desire are too painful, too unpromising 
to admit or pursue, the accumulating results only add to the catastrophe 
now unfolding. 

To look at narcissism, today's bellwether profile of character, is to see 
suffering as an ensemble of more and more closely related aspects. 
Lasch (1979) wrote of such characteristic traits of the narcissistic 
personality as an inability to feel, protective shallowness, increased 
repressed hostility, and a sense of unreality and emptiness. Thus narcissism, 
too, could be subsumed under the heading of grief, and the larger 
suggestion arises with perhaps greater force: there is something profoundly 
wrong, something at the heart of all this sorrow, however much it is 
commonly labeled under various separate categories. 

In a 1917 exploration, "Mourning and Melancholia," a puzzled Freud 
asked why the memory of "each single one of the memories and hopes" that 
is connected to the lost loved one "should be so extraordinarily painful." 
But tears of grief, it is said, are at base tears for oneself. The intense sorrow 
at a personal loss, tragic and difficult as it most certainly is, may be in some 
way also a vulnerability to sorrow over a more general, almost trans-species 

Walter Benjamin wrote his "Theses on History" a few months before 
his premature death in 1 940 at a sealed frontier that prevented escape from 
the Nazis. Breaking the constraints of Marxism and literariness, Benjamin 
achieved a high point of critical thinking. He saw the angel of history 
blown by a gale out of Paradise. He saw 

Age of G rie f 

1 23 

that civilization, from its origin, is that storm evacuating Eden, saw 
that progress is a single, ongoing catastrophe. 

Alienation and anguish were once largely, if not entirely, unknown. 
Today the rate of serious depression, for example, doubles roughly every 
ten years in the developed nations (Wright, 1995). 

As Peter Homans (1984) put it very ably, "Mourning does not destroy 
the past — it reopens relations with it and with the communities of the 
past. " Authentic grieving poses the opportunity to understand what has 
been lost and why, also to demand the recovery of an innocent state of 
being, wherein needless loss is banished. 



Running On Emptiness 


Memory is a basic human faculty that, despite its vagaries and problematics, 
we pretty much take for granted. Memory is so much always at hand, so basic to 
our ability to grasp reality, that it might seem impossible to accurately understand. 
Stephen Braude (1992), for instance, concluded that it is "plausible to regard 
memory as a phenomenon that is literally unanalyzable." 
But what of the "anthropology" of memory? In a formulation 
that Adorno and Horkheimer (1947) perhaps did not take far 
enough, "every reification is a forgetting," and reification, the 
conversion of the living and autonomous into things, into objects, 
is the foundation of civilization. Domestication is its pronounced 
realization. How much, then, has memory been defined or 
deformed by domestication, by a world in which the very 
structure of experience has been essentially altered? And if 
reification is a forgetting, it follows that the demystification and 
dissolution of reification must involve a remembering. According 
to phenomenologist Edward Casey (1987), "We have forgotten 
what memory is, and can mean; and we make matters worse by 
repressing the fact of our own oblivion." 
Memory is socially and culturally constructed. Every model of 
memory is thus culturally specific, and, as Melion and Kuchler 
(1991) point out, the pursuit of memory promotes and maintains 


formation itself. Politico-cultural practices, in dialectical interplay, 
influence the shape of memory. Arthur G. Miller (1991), for 
example, studied the ways in which "pre-Hispanic calendrics and 
territorial management strategies fashioned memory as a process 
of selective remembering and forgetting, governing patterns of 
labor and loyalty." 

Russell provided a rather famous philosophical argument to the 
effect that, for all we know, the world might have sprung into 
existence five minutes ago complete with our "memories" of 
childhood, etc. We unconsciously strive to not be a part of memory 
that alienation has forged, knowing that Russell's questioning 
does nothing to lessen the force of that memory. History has 
been cynically referred to as the science of forgetting, perhaps 
because what it remembers is inadequate to an understanding of 
our sadness, our incompleteness. As the poet Carnevale (1967) 
said, "memories weep or mourn, all memories do." 
The origins of our condition and its long, painful passage must be 
re-collected if memory is to claim its own memory. In The 
Phenomenology of Mind Hegel claimed that memory "forms the 
passage from representation to thought." But since representation 
and thought are themselves non-neutral, this formulation does 
little to uncover the roots of what has been so deeply obscured. 
Three hundred years ago, Robert Fludd saw memory as 
reflected in the organization of the external world. He saw its 
contours represented by those of some Renaissance technologies, 
especially theaters. Today acquisition, storage, and retrieval of 
memory data is the dominant model, obviously based on 
memory as a computer. Now we experience an increasingly 
programmed and impoverished collective experience, one of 
whose primary effects is an imposed cultural memory that 
legitimates dominated life. And the very defining of memory is 
inseparable from the texture and organization of social existence. 
Its embeddedness in the prevailing state of division of labor is a 
key aspect of its variability and limitations. 
What can we say of memory in its current condition, and its 
connections to other cultural dimensions? In terms of time it 
presents features that may seem contrary to our unexamined 
associations. For example, as Brain (1966) observed, our 
sensation of time is not furnished by memory. Having 
memories "is not," in this regard, "enough, for having a memory 
is a present state." If time is the enemy of life 


Running On Emptiness 

lived in the here-and-now, memory cannot be seen as its ally. Like 
dreams, memory takes place outside of time. Or as Friedman (1990) 
understated it, "time is relatively insignificant information in the 
natural functioning of memory." 

But in a life-world so divided and alienated, we seem to exist in time 
itself All of our assumptions and preconceptions proceed from that basis, 
with the shape and force of time a pretty exact measure of the division and 
alienation of that existence. Very much to the point is how closely our 
notions of memory are tied to linear conceptions of time, as Frances Yates 
brought out in The Art of Memory (1966). 

Fanguage also has a deep impact on memory. With language 
comes the turn toward mastery, as in naming. Spengler (1922) noted that 
memory is "the capacity of storing for the understanding by means of 
the name, the named." Fhe trajectory of domination is etched in 
memory as it is everywhere else. Arthur J. Miller (1991) wrote of ancient 
sacred knowledge rendered into text: "When memory became scripture, the 
past was cast as linear narrative, delimiting the future within the scope of 
previous events." 

Mnemosyne, or memory, was celebrated by the Greeks as the mother of 
the muses, but the conversion of myth into written language extends a 
debilitation begun by language itself. Kuberski (1992) goes so far as to say, 
"this is the last stop of memory, when it becomes a text." 

Fanguage takes on a life of its own, ending up in our current post- 
modern condition in which, it is often averred, there is nothing left but 
language. Words reduce and deform the experiences they symbolize; there 
is no language that would represent memory without such modification. 
Memories are resistant to being translated into words. Referring to the 
clinical setting, Donald Spence (1982) observed a "perennial conflict facing 
the patient between what is true and what is describable. " 

Almost three hundred years ago, Vico counted imagination as one of 
memory's three aspects. Gaston Bachelard (1964) provides contemporary 
reflection on the relationship of memory and imagination, a connection 
whose vitality should not be devalued. Meanwhile, Baudrillard repeatedly 
assures us that we can no longer imagine a different world. To remember 
and to see a better future are related faculties, their atrophy a mutual 

In Memoriam 


Memory is not a matter of objects brought to consciousness but is a 
part of the dynamics of consciousness (Rosenfield 1992). Wittgenstein 
rejected the Fockean view of memory as a storehouse; Proust virtually 
equated memory and perception in his notion of "involuntary" 
memory. Of course, it can also be a form of conditioning, depending 
upon the social environment and method (or lack thereof). 

For Freud, memory occupied the entire psyche. But, he observed, 
remembrance is made difficult due to repression of dangerous childhood 
wishes and feelings. The Freudian thesis posits early sexuality as the seat of 
all such charged emotional memories, though it can be read in a wider 
sense. Enid Balint (1993) described a repression of memories more basic 
than those of a sexual nature, involving reactions against the nature of a 
young child's reality. Experiencing an incoherent world, the infant fails to 
establish an acceptable view of it. "If the baby cannot build up such a world, 
it may be because he cannot bear the dissimilarities he perceives (or the way 
he is perceived), so his perceptions are disavowed.... these disavowals may 
lead to complete loss of memory of the whole world in which unacceptable 
perceptions were made." Fhe implications regarding memory and critique 
are obvious. 

Fhe original fragmentation and separation of humanity by the reifying 
force of domestication has produced the idea that the psyche consists of 
different parts functioning independently of each other and thus legitimately 
considered independently. Neurology has been unable to determine where 
and how memories exist in our brains; in fact, unlike computers, they seem 
to have "no space at all allotted solely to memory" (Herbert 1993). 

The misguided effort of science to "pin down" memory — or con- 
sciousness in general — recalls Freud's rather contrary position in this 
area. One of his most eccentric and generally ignored beliefs (1915) was 
that the individual's memory reproduces an inherited recollection of the 
entire human species. ]im Culbertson (1963, 1976, 1982) has argued 
that consciousness, including memory, permeates all of nature and is 
present even in its smallest parts. In an eccentricity that seems to 
parallel Freud's, Culbertson claims that remembrance is not a repre- 
sentation of that which is irretrievably past, but a partial re-experiencing 
of the event itself. Recall involves a "clear-loop link" to the actual 
moment in spacetime where the event is still eternally present. Fellow 


Running On Emptiness 

physicist Nick Herbert (1093) presents a similar, if slightly more con- 
ventional, view of mind as pervasive and deeply embedded in nature. 

But again, the meaning of memory is best fathomed in context, as 
another site of struggle with domination. The ruling order seeks to enlist 
memory as an ally in its never-ceasing will to legitimation. It must serve as 
a mechanism of subjection, a means of sustaining hegemony. For our part, 
we have striven, since the advent of civilization, to resist this colonization, 
this shaping of memory's influence against us. Inherently contestatory, 
memory must battle, for its integrity, the deodorizing effects of nostalgia 
and the numbing of its vitality by routine. 

Early on in the modern era Edmund Burke recognized the danger to the 
established order represented by a clear recollection of changes in society. 
Against such subversive memories he found custom to be an obscuring 
factor, a potent contribution to authority. 

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, roughly speaking, an 
industrializing West decisively broke up old patterns of life and struggled 
for complete control. Industrial capitalism depends upon mastery of both 
public and private realms for its stability, and its proponents rather quickly 
discovered the "inadequacy of available memory mechanisms" (Terdiman 
1 993) for the totalizing needs of capital. The basic dynamics of modern 
capital, however, provided the core answer to this challenge. 

Exchange is as old as division of labor. Goods move and become 
different as they circulate; memories are displaced and altered over time 
via increasingly complex exchange relationships. Proceeding inseparably, 
embedded in each other, technology and class society produce commodities 
that are more and more reified and autonomous. Borrowing from Marx and 
Lukacs, Richard Terdiman's attention to the memory crisis" of the 1 9th 
century (1993) included reference to what he called "the frozen and 
forgotten history of the object." 

Once again, origins are of central importance in understanding our 
present extremity. The development of the commodity mirrors the trajectory 
of alienation itself, its beginnings always more clouded. Bordieu (1977) 
called this suppression a "genesis amnesia." As with time, technology, and 
other basics, the memory of the production of a world of commodities is 
veiled from its consumers. The enigma of the 

In Memon am 


commodity is thus a memory disorder, one that becomes suppressed, 
less troubling as the myth of progress grows by consumption. 

Refusing the deflection of consciousness that progress is constantly 
issuing, Herbert Marcuse looked rather in the opposite direction. He was 
struck by the question of how past human suffering can be redeemed. "To 
forget," he reasoned (1955), is "the mental faculty which sustains 
submissiveness and renunciation.... Against this surrender to time, the 
restoration of remembrance to its rights, as a vehicle of liberation, is 
one of the noblest tasks of thought." It was in this vein that the Hungarian 
writer Gyorgy Konrad referred (1992) to Eastern European dissidents as 
almost alone upholding remembrance; the others must eliminate what they 
failed to do: "Most people have an interest in losing memory." 

Heidegger stressed the point that the past is irrecoverably absent, while his 
student, Marcuse, saw that it is memory's ability to reverse the flow of time 
that makes it a Utopian faculty. The repressed "remains unaltered by the 
passage of time" (Freud 1933) as personally painful or traumatic episodes are 
sealed from one's awareness. But Marcuse was alert to a similar repression of 
pleasurable activities enacted and enforced by the needs of a pervasively 
confining and immiserating society. "Forgetting past suffering and past joy 
alleviates life under a repressive reality principle. In contrast, remembrance 
spurs the drive for the conquest of suffering and the permanence of joy " 

Today the Utopian hopes of Marcuse are definitely out of fashion. Our 
postmodern era is one of cynicism and even despair, embodying, as Frederic 
Jameson put it (1984), the "cultural logic of late capitalism." Human 
yearnings are eclipsed by the cold strata of images and hypertechnology; 
surface sensation, gadget titillation, jaded disinterest: increasingly a 
landscape of cyborgs programmed by amnesia. Jameson's "Postmodernism 
and Consumer Society" (1982) concluded that "Our entire contemporary 
social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own 

Jean-Francois Lyotard is a central postmodern thinker; characteris- 
tically, there is no component of remembrance in his approach. The overall 
picture of defeat, in fact, finds Lyotard denouncing memory for its use-value 
to the system: like everything else, capital pulls memory into its orbit and 
appropriates its functions (1973, 1989). Memory is 

130 Running On Emptiness 

explicitly condemned as a moment of theory, moreover, theory 
being a foolish struggle against forgetfulness, as Christa Burger 
aptly noted (1991). 

Memory has not been plumbed deeply enough as indispensable 
ally to theory. Adorno warned against a theory of origins and even 
Marcuse failed to reach back far enough. Meanwhile, the all but 
enveloping postmodern Zeitgeist is equally opposed to 
remembering as to critical social theory. 
The unthinking acceptance, indeed, "virtual worship of 
technology" (Lash and Friedman, 1991) is an important PM 
trait that is closely related to its deficiencies regarding memory 
and theory. When technology is treated as a given (or worse, as a 
favorable "natural" development), we find that human, 
historical memory becomes supplanted by technology's 
memory. An inevitable, unconscious contingency that is far 
more trusted and relied upon than the kind it overrides, and 
with an undeniable ideological force. 

If the hidden or unexamined — the forgotten — exerts a domination 
over us, the point of recollecting the past is to understand the force of its 
implicit truth-claim upon the present. The cumulative weight of the past 
"weighs like a nightmare" on the minds 

gh of the living, wrote Marx. 

To flee the past, so much of it — yes — but to know how and why 
means, in large part, memory. Marx's contemporary, Melville, expressed a 
dissent from the amnesia that was already gathering a century and a half 
ago, in the wreck of the Pequod in Moby Dick. Ahab's final order to the 
crew, to "sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool!", stands for 
an evacuation of collective memory. But Ishmael, as he clings to the 
coffin inscribed with "hieroglyphic marks" of exterminated races, disobeys. 
"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." 

Until modern times the word memory extended across the vast 
range of the Latin memor, "mindful," mens, "the mind," and all 
the words that display the Indo-germanic roots men-, mon-, mn-, 
words related to thinking, intending, and being conscious or 
mindful in any way. The sense of memory was so broad as to 
encompass both death and love, for example. "How paltry the 
word memory has become since then!", in the judgment of Kroll 

A technological context reduces memory to information 
retrieval, with a tendency toward enlarged colonization of what is 

In Memonam 


sensual, lived. Virtual Reality is offered to an impoverished spirit; 
memory implants may not be far off. Nostalgia, the other side 
of the coin and mirror image of progress, appeals to the feeling 
that the past offered pleasures no longer attainable. As Proust 
put it, the only paradises are those we have lost. 
If we can see that art, and culture itself, are symptoms of human 
fragmentation, why is it impermissible to consider re- 
establishing the unity which has been lost? Referring to the 
ideal of living wholly in the present moment, futurologist John 
Holmdahl once playfully proposed an "Amnesia Foundation" 
toward that end. But to get there, we need not the 
suppression of memory, but its realization and supersession. 
Instrumental reason must be jettisoned along the way; perhaps 
even dialectical thinking, still drawing on memory, can one day 
be let go of, with new or unrecognizable senses and abilities 
coming into play in lieu of so many layers of atrophy and 


1 32 

Running On Emptiness 


The reigning cultural mythos, including its pseudo-oppositional currents, is 
agreed on one thing: Star Trek is good for you. The vast popularity of this 
impossibly weak, artificial, repressive series (actually there were three series, over 
the past 25 years or so) is a puzzling and sad symptom of an absence of both 
vitality and reflection. Of the many stupid but popular aspects of culture, few 
have such a range of fans, such a range of possibilities for extending a little the 
wave-lengths of control. 

One could cite the translation of the original Star Trek series into no less 
than 49 languages, the seemingly insatiable appetite for even the most obscure 
Trek trivia on the part of a large subculture, and the burgeoning quantity of books, 
movies, conventions, etc. that constitute a sizeable industry. But Star Trek got 
my attention in a more personal way. A friend had a breakdown and discovered, 
on his locked psychiatric ward, that Star Trek was prescribed viewing. At about 
the same time I became aware that it is apparently also mandatory in the home 
of neighbors of mine, a hippie/"alternative lifestyle" family that is otherwise 
pretty anti-TV. 

Even quite a few "anarchists" are, of their own volition, very 
big Trek fans. Which brings to mind one of its most repulsive 
features, its predication on a strict, martial hierarchy. ("Isn't that 
right, Number 


One?") The order-giving/ order-taking military framework is 
always present and constitutes the model of social reality, for 
the crew is never seen in a different context. The evolution of 
the program during its three incarnations is also worth noting, 
for subtle shifts in this authoritarian model. 

Captain Kirk, the original supreme leader, was a bit of a 
cowboy, even a maverick in some very slight ways. But Captain 
Riker, in series #2, "The Next Generation," is very much the 
corporate boss, totally inseparable from his role as absolute 
authority. And in a significant sense, even the dynamics or 
movement of the whole operation comes to an end over time. 
"Deep Space Nine," the third and final series, dispensed with 
the Enterprise (so very aptly named for a deeply entrepreneurially- 
spirited orientation) and takes place on a stationary space 
platform. No more trek; corresponding perfectly to a world 
where, since the collapse of bureaucratic state capitalism 
beginning in the late 1980s, modern capital now dominates 
everything, everywhere. 

What Star Trek conveys about technology is probably its most 
insidious contribution to domination. Not only is a structure of 
hierarchical orders a constant; so is the high-tech, anti-nature 
foundation of the drama as a whole. Always at home in a sterile 
container in which they represent society, the crew could not be 
more cut off from the natural world. In fact, as the highest 
development in the mastery and manipulation of nature, Star 
Trek is really saying that nature no longer exists. 
The android/computer Data, successor to Spock, is the central 
figure in an episode that illustrates perfectly the elevation of the 
machine. Data continually "experiences" disturbances that are 
initially thought to be a sort of electrical malfunctioning in "his" 
circuitry. Slowly the idea is introduced that "he" is actually 
having dreams. Much warm and fuzzy emotion envelopes this 
supposedly marvelous development, this triumph of 
consciousness. Never mind that the message is more hideous 
than uplifting. What we are seeing, by imputing human 
feelings to technology, is a celebration of the very framework 
that is debasing inner nature as it destroys outer nature. People 
behaving more and more like machines while machines become 
increasingly "human" is a horrible development not limited to 
Star Trek, but certainly applauded and thereby advanced by it. 


Running on Emptiness 

Considered as an exercise in acting and characterization, Star 
Trek is chillingly true to the reversal that the episode just cited 
typifies. The glaring thing about ± t as drama is how lifeless and 
plastic the characters are. In fact, they are so machine-like and 
one-dimensional as to be virtually interchangeable. The Irish 
actor Colm Mean t > ("Deep Space Nine") has turned in vibrantly 
alive movie performances; in Star Trek he seemed to be in a 
coma, devoid of life, Irish or otherwise. Maybe it is soothing for 
some viewers to see so little going on on the part of non- 

And this robot-like quality is, in turn, related to the decidedly anti- 
sensual spirit of Trek reality. Intensification of technology as a 
way of life is part of it, as is a sort of moral condemnation of 
sex. This, too, is a constant, seen in the very texture of the 
program. The uniforms are one example; they are never 
dispensed with, and provide a cadet-like image, the stuff of 
puerile fantasy. This parallels, on a slightly different level, the 
current fascination in American society with angels, sexless and 
benignly powerful. Overall, Star Trek is as sanitized and boring as 
Barney or Walt Disney. 

An episode of "The Next Generation" featuring Captain Picard 
and the widow of his best friend exemplifies the anti-sexual theme. 
While dodging aliens, in a long "action" sequence possessed of less 
tension than that of a weak "B" western, they learn that 
they've always been attracted to each other. Neither had 
expressed such feelings, however, due to her married state, but 
now they encounter each other unencumbered. It is made 
perfectly clear that there is no reason whatsoever for them to 
hold back, yet the tale ends with them bidding a wistful, 
unconsummated farewell forever to the other. I cannot 
imagine a script giving a more unqualified no to love: even 
when there is not a reason in the galaxy to repress oneself, do it 
anyway. Breathtaking! 

Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek's creator, in case there's anyone on 
earth who doesn't know it) was a police science/pre-law major in 
his college days. After service in World War II, he joined the Los 
Angeles Police Department. He next began writing scripts for 
such television series as Highway Patrol and Dragnet. 
Roddenberry's background as a liberal cop seems perfect as 
guiding light for the TV phenomenon that, it could almost be 
said, invented Political Correctness. 

why I Hate star Trek 


Women, gays, the disabled, minorities are treated 
sympathetically on Star Trek, a not unusual corporate 
television gesture. This minimum requirement should not 
blind us to the slightly less obvious problems of content. Sadly, 
Ursula LeGuin, considered by many a utopian/anarchist writer, 
seemed to see little else besides Star Trek's PC rating in her 
"Appointment with the Enterprise: an Appreciation," written for 
the May 14, 1994 TV Guide. She gushed over the late series in 
the classic superficiality of the liberal, managing to see a mar- 
velous morality play, and ignoring its worship of authority and 
a monstrous techno-future. 
Good riddance to Star Trek! 

With help from Marty Hichens 



Running On Emptiness 


The Public Broadcasting System produces "programming" toward a 
more manageable society. In fact, it is the network rather expressly for 
managers, and what it airs can best be understood by keeping in mind 
this service to the managing class. The exact ratio of corporate to gov- 
ernment funding of PBS is inconsequential to its basic nature and function. 
Typically, it launders the image of oil giants and other corporate 
uglies via their tax-deductible underwriting of high culture, such 
as opera. Even more basically, it provides the illusion of an 
"independent" source of information while enforcing the 
dominant constraints as to what constitutes the acceptable or 
reputable in ideas and information. 

PBS is "innovative" in one real sense: as a consistent promoter of 
the latest in high-tech impoverishment. Those who understand 
the importance of the computerization of life— both Clinton and 
Gingrich, for instance— realize the vital PBS contribution in this 
area. Its completely neutered "environmentalism" never hints at 
questioning the hierarchical organization of social existence which 
daily generates the global ecocrisis. This "green" veneer serves, in 
practice, as perfect accompaniment to the real goal, namely, the 
highest "creative" productivity of capital. 

PBS projects a superior code of diversity, tolerance and fairness, 
under which the essentials of modern, bereft, commodified life 


tinue unaffected. This pretense of a calm, confident, rational 
social world is in stark contrast to the actual horrors and 
dislocations, psychic and public, of a stricken society. Stately 
British dramas like "Masterpiece Theater" further this soothing 
overall tone of ruling class control. Small wonder that PBS 
sponsors are so often management services, computer firms, 
corporate lawyers and others whose explicit function is the running 
of society in important capacities. 

All this is fairly transparent and hardly new. More recent is 
what seems to be a growing connection between PBS and the 
prevailing culture of postmodernism. A self-promotion spot 
highlights this nascent marriage between the managerial 
hegemony PBS aspires to and the reigning cultural hegemony of 
postmodernism. The text of the promo encompasses virtually 
every important facet of the new PM creed, and it is easy to see 
how it serves explicit control aims. PBS celebrates itself— and the 
divided society it serves— in the same oath of allegiance: 

America's Storyteller 

Welcome to a place that is always just 
beginning, that rouses itself day to day 
and year to year to admire what it's 
made, starting with nothing, then 
rushes to invent itself all over again. 

Ordinary people, doing extraordinary 
things; knowing what goes on now goes 
on to shape tomorrow. 

Welcome to the land that is never 
exactly what you think it is and will 
never stay that way for long. 

There are a million stories in the 
streets of the cities we never finish 
building. We intend to tell them all. 


Running On Emptiness 

The postmodern "death of the subject" announces the end of the 
individual, dissolved in language. After the likes of Heidegger and 
Lacan, it is language itself that does the talking, which 
parallels the real: capital has swallowed up the human actor. 
And so our text begins; it is "the place" which is the subject, not 
its inhabitants. 

This place is "always just beginning." A remarkably bald way of 
expressing the postmodern refusal of history and of origins. 
History, after all, is just so many arbitrary fictions; pick one— or, 
more characteristically, don't even bother— they are equally 
valid/invalid. As for origins, well, that's a bigger fool's errand yet. 
There are no origins; things have always been this way. 
Everything before this (media) moment is erased. This place is 
"always just beginning." 

And that is so admirable! This place "rouses itself"— in order "to 
admire what it's made." This is the narcissism of a putrescent 
society in love with itself, able to focus so admiringly with the 
invaluable aid of know-nothing postmodernism. What it's made 
of is never made clear. To enumerate the specifics of this empty 
place, in all their terrifying emptiness, might tend to ground the 
flight of this paean of admiration. 

"Starting with nothing"— another reason to admire the 
achievements of our "place." Here, too, is the embrace of an 
almost total ignorance. Self-chosen ignorance at that, which is 
so important to the fact of "postmodern culture" as oxymoron. 
"Starting with nothing." Never mind the unsuspecting peoples 
who had to be systematically sacrificed to enable the admirable 
wonders of today. Never mind the wondrous part of this planet 
that existed, naturally and freely, somehow prior to the glories 
erected by this "place." "Starting with nothing." No blood on 
anyone's hands. 

Skipping over the innocuous second stanza, "Welcome to 
the land that is never exactly what you think it is." Here is 
another cardinal postmodern tenet: the pointlessness of 
analysis. Meaning is an illusion, or, as the PM deconstructionists 
say, "all interpretation is misinterpretation." In practice, the 
corollary is, let the experts run things; their rule and technology 
are inevitable and unfathomable, anyway. The Information 
Society, the dream of managers and their PBS, "is never 
exactly what you think it is." You are incapable, by definition, 
of understanding your subjugation to power. So sit back, tube 
out, and we'll perfect it. 

PBS, Power, And Postmodernism 

This land also "will never stay that way [the way you mistakenly 
thought it was] for long." More classic postmodernism: ever-shifting 
signification, undecidability. Of course it is fine that the situation is 
both opaque and fluid: this guarantees your perpetual ignorance and 
slavery . 

"The streets of the cities we never finish building." Capital and its high- 
tech embodiment dwarf you, and never rest. This "place" goes on forever. 
The contribution of postmodernism to PBS is inestimable, as this piece 
of pure PM makes utterly clear. 


1 40 

Running On Emptiness 


Noam Chomsky is probably the most well-known American anarchist, 
somewhat curious given the fact that he is a liberal-leftist politically and 
downright reactionary in his academic specialty of linguistic theory. 
Chomsky is also, by all accounts, a generous, sincere, tireless activist, 
which does not, unfortunately, confer his thinking with liberatory value. 

Reading through his many books and interviews, one looks in vain 
for the anarchist or any thorough critique. When asked point-blank, 
"Are governments inherently bad?" his reply (28 January 1988) is no. He 
is critical of government policies, not government itself, motivated by his 
"duty as a citizen." The constant refrain in his work is a plea for democracy: 
"real democracy," "real participation," "active involvement," and the like. 

His goal is for "a significant degree of democratization," not the 
replacement of political rule, albeit democratic rule, by a condition of 
no rule called anarchy. Hardly surprising, then, that his personal prac- 
tice consists of reformist, issues-oriented efforts like symbolic tax resist- 
ance and ACLU membership. Instead of a critique of capital, its 
forms, dynamics, etc., Chomsky calls (1992) for "social control over 
investment. That's a social revolution." What a ridiculous assertion. 

His focus, almost exclusively, has been on U.S. foreign policy, a 
narrowness that would exert a conservative influence even for a radical 


thinker. If urging increased involvement in politics goes against the 
potentially subversive tide toward less and less involvement, Chomsky's 
emphasis on statecraft in itself gravitates toward acceptance of states. 
And completely ignoring key areas (such as nature and women, to mention 
only two), makes him less relevant still. 

In terms of inter-governmental relations, the specifics are likewise 
disappointing. A principal interest here is the Middle East, and we see 
anything but an anarchist or anti-authoritarian analysis. He has consistently 
argued (in books like The Fateful Triangle, 1983) for a two-state solution to 
the Palestinian question. A characteristic formulation: "Israel within its 
internationally recognized borders would be accorded the rights of any state 
in the international system, no more, no less." Such positions fit right into 
the electoral racket and all it legitimizes. Along these lines, he singled out 
(Voices of Dissent, 1992) the centrist Salvadoran politician Ruben Zamora 
when asked whom he most admired. 

Chomsky has long complained that the present system and its lap- 
dog media have done their best, despite his many books in print, to 
marginalize and suppress his perspective. More than a little ironic, 
then, that he has done his best to contribute to the much greater mar- 
ginalization of the anarchist perspective. He has figured in countless ads 
and testimonials for the likes of The Nation, In These Times, and Z 
Magazine, but has never even mentioned Anarchy, Fifth Estate, or other 
anti-authoritarian publications. Uncritically championing the liberal- 
left media while totally ignoring our own media can hardly be an acci- 
dent or an oversight. In fact, I exchanged a couple of letters with him in 
1982 over this very point (copies available from me). He gave a rather 
non-sequitur, pro-left response and has gone right on keeping his public 
back turned against any anarchy point of view. 

Chomsky's newest book of interviews, Class Warfare, is promoted in 
the liberal-left media as " accessible new thinking on the Republican 
Revolution." It supposedly provides the answers to such questions as "Why, 
as a supporter of anarchist ideals, he is in favor of strengthening the 
federal government. " The real answer, painfully obvious, is that he is not 
an anarchist at all. 

Long a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Tech- 
nology, he achieved fame and fortune for his conceptions of the nature 

at lanmiQap T*T"r\Ti=>cfc/~*'r rhnmcn/ cf^^c lanmionp ac a tivi=»H inniitp nort r\T 


Running on Emptiness 

some "essential human nature" (Barsamian 1992). Language develops 
along an intrinsically determined path, very much like a physical 
organ. In this sense, Chomsky says language "simply arose" (1988) and 
that we should study it as "we study any problem in biology" (1978). 

In other words, language, that most fundamental part of culture, 
has no real relationship with culture and is a matter of instinct-driven 
formation through biological specialization. 

Here, as everywhere else, Chomsky cannot even seem to imagine 
any problematics about origins of alienation or fundamental probmgs 
about what symbolic culture really is, at base. Language for Chomsky is 
a strictly natural phenomenon, quite unrelated to the genesis of human 
culture or social development. A severely backward, non-radical per- 
spective, not unrelated to his unwillingness — this "anarchist" of ours — to 
put much else into question, outside of a very narrow political focus. 

Lhe summer 1991 issue of Anarchy magazine included "A Brief 
Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchy, Civilization, & Technol- 
ogy." Not surprisingly, it was a rather strange affair, given the profes- 
sor's general antipathy to all three topics. The subject of anarchy he 
ignored altogether, consonant with his avoidance of it throughout the 
years. Responding to various questions about civilization and technol- 
ogy, he was obviously as uncomfortable as he was completely unpre- 
pared to give any informed responses. Dismissive of new lines of thought 
that critically re-examine the nature of civilization, Chomsky was 
obviously ignorant of this growing literature and its influence in the 
anti-authoritarian milieu. 

Concerning technology, he was, reluctantly, more expansive, but 
just as in the dark as with the question of civilization. His responses 
repeated all the discredited, unexamined pro-tech cliches, now less and 
less credible among anarchists: technology as a mere tool, a "quite neutral" 
phenomenon to be seen only in terms of specific, similarly unexamined 
uses. Chomsky actually declares that cars are fine; it's only corporate 
executives that are the problem. Likewise with robotics, as if that 
drops from heaven and has no grounding in domination of 
nature, division of labor, etc., etc. In closing, he proclaimed that "the 
only thing that can possibly resolve environmental problems is 
advanced technology." Yes: more of the soul-destroying, eco-destroying 
malignancy that has created the current nightmare! 

who is Chomsky? 


In the fall of 1995 Chomsky donated much of the proceeds from 
a well-attended speech on U.S. foreign policy to Portland's Freedom 
and Mutual Aid center, better known as the local anarchist info-shop. 
As if to honor its generous benefactor appropriately, the info-shop 
spent the money first of all on a computer system, and several months 
later financed a booklet promoting the info-shop and the ideas behind 
it. Among the most prominent quotes adorning the pamphlet is one 
that begins, "The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve 
what is now technically realizable." The attentive reader may not need 
me to name the author of these words, nor to point out this less than 
qualitatively radical influence. For those of us who see our task as aiding in 
the utter abolition of our "modern industrial society," it is repellent in the 
extreme to find its realization abjectly celebrated. 

In issues of The Progressive and Z Magazine during 1996 and 1997, 
Chomsky has actually argued that no one should support a "devolution" 
of Big Brother authority — a movement of power from 
the federal government to state and local levels. This bankrupt and dis- 
graceful "anarchist" (!) angle has been enough to create a furor among 
even some of the utterly reformist partisans of those tepid mags. 

Most of the above mainly belongs to the well-known, dreary, 
superficial field of waning leftism, but more pernicious is its apparent 
influence on those supposedly committed to the goal of anarchy. 

Black & Red's latest (1997) offering is a reprint of Chomsky's 
Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, which discusses the shockingly 
novel and radical thesis that liberals have been known to conceal/distort 
historical truth. The re -publication </ this piece of memorabilia was 
assisted (and introduced) by individuals of Fifth Estate, which is itself in 
decline by the measure of its growing leftist component. FE was once a 
vibrant, cutting-edge project. Now its milieu in Detroit can find 
nothing better than a thirty -year-old, already -published relic to give 
expression to its meager resources. 

Chomsky, like Bookchin, represents the failed inadequate critique 
of the past, resolutely unwilling or unable to confront the enveloping 
crisis on all levels. It is past time to go forward and engage the real depths 
of the disaster facing all of us. 



Running On Emptiness 


I've been getting increasingly annoyed by the word-salad posturing of 
Bey and find "Primitives & Extropians" one of the weaker offerings yet 
from this postmodern liberal. I will confine myself to some of the stand-out 
dopiness from what is shot through with inaccuracies, evasions, 
pontificating, ego-stroking, and shallowness. 

On the level of content "P's & E's" is little short of absurd. He 
pitches his piece, most basically, as a comparison of two viewpoints, "two 
anarchist tendencies." But how even the most air-headed could make 
the extreme techno-fascist imperialism of extropy into an "anarchist" 
tendency is quite beyond me. In fact, it worships every hideous high-tech 
manifestation of the total mastery of nature and the obliteration of 
every trace of the sensual, autonomous individual. To quote from one of 
its priests, Carnegie -Mellon' s Hans Moravec, "The final frontier will be 
urbanized, ultimately into an arena where every bit of activity is a 
meaningful computation: the inhabited portion of the universe will be 
transformed into a cyberspace ... We might then be tempted to replace 
some of our innermost mental processes with more cyberspace-appropriate 
programs purchased from Artificial Intelligence, and so, bit by bit, 
transform ourselves into something much like them. Ultimately our 
thinking procedures could be totally liberated from any traces of our 
original body, indeed of any body." 


(Extropy, #10, 1993). To term something so viciously evil "anarchist" 
suggests stupidity compounded by bad faith. 

Bey's method is as appalling as his claims to truthfulness, and 
essentially conforms to textbook postmodernism. Aestheticism plus 
knownothingism is the PM formula; cynical as to the possibility of 
meaning, allergic to analysis, hooked on trendy word-play, "Primi- 
tivists & Extropians" displays these features exquisitely. 

A point of view that tries to be a consistent, well-researched, tenta- 
tive exploration is deemed absolutist, rigid, aggressive, the product of a 
"presumptive vanguard of the pure." Bey, however, is inconsistent, messy, 
open, impure, non-exclusive, etc. He elevates diversity, the multiplicity of 
situations, the refusal of the world to conform to simple formulations. What 
is galling is how stark and even nightmarish our situation really is, hip 
verbiage aside. Frederic Jameson put it ably in his Seeds of Time (1994): 
"How is it possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality 
in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail ... to 
reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and of the 
unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom?" 

Bey completely buys into the PM illusion that society is too "complex" 
to yield to any profound indictment. A further unveiling of our trendy 
author reveals a liberal, whose "utopian" future might well include, he 
discloses, "wrangling about 'acceptable emission standards' or forest 
preservation." Further, "the human (animal/animate) scaling of economy 
and technology — this, however untidy, I would call Utopia. " How basically 
reformist! It is little wonder that Bey opens this whole mess of an article 
by declaring that "the anarcho-primitivists have backed themselves into 
a situation where they can never be satisfied without the total dissolution 
of the totality." 

A liberal like Bey has really no quarrel with the totality, whereas I 
foolishly have thought that the threshold definition of a radical, of one 
who yearns for a qualitative break with the whole deranged setup, is 
precisely dissatisfaction with the totality . 

More than half of this pathetic exercise is Bey peddling his patented 
Temporary Autonomous Zone prescription. The TAZ "seems to be the 
only manifestation of the possibility of radical conviviality," is bigger 
than "mere ideas," is able to "reconcile the wilderness and 


Running On Emptiness 

cyberspace ... in fact, has already done so." Reads to me like it is Bey 
who advances his candidacy for Absolute Rightness, not those who seek, 
in an anti-ideological and visionary spirit, to learn from our origins and 
identify the basics, in reality, of our deep imprisonment. Liberatory 
analysis and practice have, I would say, far better chances for success 
from clear thinking and unlimited desire than from stylistic mantras about 
the glories of inconsistency and hip-sounding, three-word solutions in 
capital letters. 




Pigs will be pigs. You've got to wonder about anyone who'd choose to 
be one. Just as you have to wonder how many people chose/choose not 
to know that Rodney King beatings happen every day. 

But the 1992 insurrection in L.A. was not fundamentally about 
the latest high-profile police atrocity, nor was it mainly a matter of race 
relations. Of course, the media worked overtime to argue otherwise, 
endlessly showing a white trucker being beaten by blacks, in order to 
equate him with Rodney King and trivialize the whole matter. Pushing 
most of the story out of the way, this tactic says, one "brutal and senseless" 
act cancels the other and things are not really that bad, except for 
such behavior. As if excesses committed by a population enraged beyond 
measure are the same as a calculated, vicious act by those who are not. 
More importantly, what is truly "brutal and senseless" is remaining 
passive about systematic degradation and not rising Lipwrathfully. 

The media "coverage" was simply outrageous. Almost none of it 
hesitated to openly take sides against the slave revolt and array every 
kind of oppositional thinking against it. An outbreak that cost some 
60 lives, burned and looted 5,000 businesses to the tune of $1 
billion, and required 8,500 troops and countless cops from all over 
Southern California to contain, was attributed to a few "hoodlums 


Running On Emptiness 

and opportunists" — an incredible lie in itself. All media attention 
seemed to turn to politicians and church leaders — for their help in 
denouncing the events unfolding, those cops who speak for the very 
few. The media behavior only reminds one that its job is always to 
advertise the culture defined by the commodity and its rules (viz. 

On May 1st a group of German anarchists in Berlin unfurled a 
banner declaring their solidarity with the people of Los Angeles and 
attacked a nearby group of neo-Nazis. In a radio interview May 6th, 
permitted safely after the fact, sociologist Harry Edwards pointed out 
that what happened "was not a black vs. white thing. Everyone was 
out in the streets, old and young and every color." He also made it 
clear that people with jobs took part, including employees who destroyed 
their employers' businesses. So much for the vain hope of capital that 
investment in new businesses will create social peace. 

The noting was not confined to the ghetto. In LA., it spread to 
downtown, Westwood, mid-Wilshire and Hollywood, as desert-cam- 
ouflaged armor guarded shopping malls for nearly 50 miles in every 
direction. The violence could not be isolated in South Central Los Angeles 
any more than the depth of alienation can that exists all across this 
rotting culture. The decline of voting to depths that challenge the very 
legitimacy of a phoney representation is one excellent example. 

Those who wish to remain slaves as every authentic aspect of society, 
and nature along with it, are looted every day still summon up their 
defenses of slavery. Others, everywhere, who will not suppress their 
anger, their passion to live, find an inspiration in the explosion of those 
whose pride and dignity could not be suppressed. As Marc Fumaroli put it 
earlier this year, "the new generation is now discovering that the state 
of being a consumer, and above all a 'cultural' consumer, is the most 
humiliating and deceptive of all." 




The quest for authenticity and community, completely denied and ren- 
dered desperate, finds its home in Jonestown and Waco. The sense of truly 
being alive and of belonging has almost nowhere to go in the society whose 
two fastest growing classes are the homeless and prisoners. Daily existence 
is increasingly that of despair, depression, and derangement, punctuated by 
news of the latest serial murder spree or global ecodisaster, consumed as 
horrible entertainments in the emptiness. 

Debord expressed the situation accurately: "It should be known that 
servitude henceforth truly wants to be loved for itself, and no longer 
because it would bring some extrinsic advantage. Previously, it could pass 
for a protection; but it no longer protects anything." Even the apparatus 
of oppression concedes virtually the same point: Forbes, organ of finance 
capital, commemorated its 75th anniversary with a cover-story theme of 
"Why We Feel so Bad when We Have it so Good." In the Psychological 
Society at large, in which the only reality is the personal, its hallmark 
denial and delusion are challenged, almost ironically, by the definitively 
impoverished realm of the personal. More and more clearly, the choice 
is between craven servitude or a qualitative break with the entire force- 
field of alienation. 

In a cult everything that an individual has is invested, the only 
guarantee against the total refusal of that cult. How else, for example, 


Running On Emptiness 

could it be endured that wives and children were offered up to David 
Koresh and blind submission obtained rather than revolt? Evidently 
autonomy and self-respect can be freely given over when the world so 
thoroughly devalues them. 

None of us is immune from the horrors, commonplace and spec- 
tacular; the immune system itself, in fact, seems to be giving way, and 
this is not confined to AIDS or TB. The stress of work, according to a 
March report of the UN's International Labor Organization, is advanc- 
ing to the point of a "worldwide epidemic." The overall situation is gravely 
worse than when Nietzsche observed that "most people think that 
nothing but this wearying reality of ours is possible. " 

Current reality has become impossible and continues to lose credi- 
bility. We must be outsiders, never represented, investing nothing in the 
death march we are expected to help reproduce. The ultimate pleasure lies 
in destroying that which is destroying us, in the spirit of the 
Situationists, who, when asked how they were going to destroy the 
dominant culture, replied, "In two ways: gradually at first, then sud- 




Technogogues and technopaths we have had with us for some time. 
The Artificial Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, for instance, was well- 
known in the early 1980s for his description of the human brain as "a 
three -pound computer made of meat." He was featured in the December 
1 983 issue of Psychology Today, occasioning the following letter: 

Marvin Minsky: 

With the wholly uncritical treatment — nay, giddy embrace — of 
high technology, even to such excrescences as machine "emotions" 
which you develop and promote, Psychology Today has at least made 
it publicly plain what's intended for social life. 

Your dehumanizing work is a prime contribution to high tech's 
accelerating motion toward an ever more artificial, de-individuated, 
empty landscape. 

I believe I am not alone in the opinion that vermin such as you 
will one day be considered among the worst criminals this century 
has produced. 

In revulsion, 
John Zerzan 


Running On Emptiness 

A dozen years later the number of those actively engaged in the 
desolation of the soul and the murder of nature has probably risen, but 
support for the entire framework of such activity has undoubtedly 

Enter Unabomber (he/she/they) with a critique, in acts as well as 
words, of our sad, perverse, and increasingly bereft technological exis- 
tence. Unabomber calls for a return to "wild nature" via the "complete 
and permanent destruction of modern industrial society in every part 
of the world," and the replacement of that impersonal, unfree, and alienated 
society by that of small, face-to-face social groupings. He has killed, three 
and wounded 23 in the service of this profoundly radical vision. 

There are two obvious objections to this theory and practice. For 
one thing, a return to undomesticated autonomous ways of living 
would not be achieved by the removal of industrialism alone. Such removal 
would still leave domination of nature, subjugation of women, war, 
religion, the state, and division of labor, to cite some basic social 
pathologies. It is civilization itself that must be undone to go where 
Unabomber wants to go. In other words, the wrong turn for humanity 
was the Agricultural Revolution, much more fundamentally than the 
Industrial Revolution. 

In terms of practice, the mailing of explosive devices intended for 
the agents who are engineering the present catastrophe is too random. 
Children, mail carriers, and others could easily be killed. Even if one 
granted the legitimacy of striking at the high-tech horror show by ter- 
rorizing its indispensable architects, collateral harm is not justifiable. 

Meanwhile, Unabomber operates in a context of massive psychic 
immiseration and loss of faith in all of the system's institutions. How 
many moviegoers, to be more specific, took issue with Terminator 2 and 
its equating of science and technology with death and destruction? 
Keay Davidson's "A Rage Against Science" (San Francisco Examiner, 
April 30, 1995) observed that Unabomber's "avowed hatred of science 
and technological trends reflects growing popular disillusionment with 

A noteworthy example of the resonance that his sweeping critique of 
the modern world enjoys is "The Evolution of Despair" by Robert Wright, 
cover story of Time for August 28, 1995. The long article discusses 

Whose Unabomber? 


Unabomber's indictment soberly and sympathetically, in an effort to 
plumb "the source of our pervasive sense of discontent. " 

At the same time, not surprisingly, other commentators have 
sought to minimize the possible impact of such ideas. "Unabomber 
Manifesto Not Particularly Unique" is the dismissive summary John 
Schwartz provided for the questioning of society, as if anything like 
that goes on in classrooms. Ellul, Juenger and others with a negative 
view of technology are far from old hat; they are unknown, not a part 
of accepted, respectable discourse. The cowardice and dishonesty, typical of 
professors and journalists could hardly be more clearly represented. 

Also easily predictable has been the antipathy to Unabomber-type 
ideas from the liberal-left. "Unabummer" was Alexander Cockburn's near- 
hysterical denunciation in The Nation, August 28/September 4, 1995. 
This pseudo-critic of U.S. capitalism rants about Unabomber's "homicidal 
political nuttiness," the fruit of an "irrational" American anarchist tradition. 
Cockburn says that Unabomber represents a "rotted-out romanticism of 
the individual and nature," that nature is gone forever and we'd better 
accept its extinction. In reply to this effort to vilify and marginalize 
both Unabomber and anarchism, Bob Black points out (unpublished letter 
to the editor) the worldwide resurgence of anarchism and finds 
Unabomber expressing "the best and the predominant thinking in 
contemporary North American anarchism, which has mostly gotten 
over the workerism and productivism which it too often used to share 
with Marxism. " 

In spring '95 Earth First! spokesperson Judi Bari labeled Unabomber a 
"sociopath," going on to declare, definitively but mistakenly, that 
"there is no one in the radical environmental movement who is calling 
for violence." This is not the place to adequately discuss the politics of 
radical environmentalism, but Bari's pontificating sounds like the voice 
of the many anarcho-liberals who wish to go no further in defense of 
the wild than tired, ineffective civil disobedience, and who brandish 
such timid and compromised slogans as "no deforestation without 
representation. " 

The summer '95 issue of Slingshot, tabloid of politically correct 
Berkeley militants, contained a brief editorial trashing Unabomber for 
creating "the real danger of government repression" of the radical 


Running on Emptiness 

milieu. The fear that places blame on Unabomber overlooks the simple 
fact that any real blows against the Megamachine will invite responses 
from our enemies. The specter of repression is most effectively ban- 
ished by doing nothing. 

For their part, the "anarchists" of Love and Rage (August/Septemher 
1995) have also joined the anti-Unabomber leftist chorus. Wayne 
Price's "Is the Unabomber an Anarchist?" concedes, with Bob Black, 
that "most anarchists today do not regard the current development of 
industrial technology as 'progressive' or even 'neutral,' as do Marxists 
and liberals." But after giving this guarded lip-service to the ascen- 
dancy of Unabomber-like ideas, Price virulently decries Unabomber as 
"a murderer dragging noble ideas through the mud" and withholds 
even such political and legal support that he would accord authoritar- 
ian leftists targeted by the state. Love and Rage is defined by a heavy- 
handed, manipulative organize-the-masses ideology; approaches that are 
more honest and more radical are either ignored or condemned by 
these politicians. 

But this selective mini-survey of opposition to Unabomber does not 
by any means exhaust the range of responses. There are other perspectives, 
which have mainly, for obvious reasons, been expressed only privately. 
Some of us, for one thing, have found a glint of hope in the public 
appearance, at last, of a challenge to the fundamentals of a depraved 
landscape. In distinction to the widespread feeling that everything 
outside of the self is beyond our control, the monopoly of lies has been 
broken. It might be said that Unabomber's (media) impact is here 
today, only to be forgotten tomorrow. But at least a few will have been 
able to understand and remember. The irony, of course, is that lethal 
bombings were necessary for an alternative to planetary and individual 
destruction to be heard. 

The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering 
the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when 
have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World 
ever been called to account? Where is any elemental personal 
responsibility when the planners of our daily and global death march 
act with complete impunity? 

The ruling order rewards such destroyers and tries to polish their 
image. The May 21, 1995 New York Times Magazine's "Unabomber 

whose unabomber? 


and David Gelerntner" humanizes the latter, injured by a Unabomber 
bomb at Yale, as a likable computer visionary preparing a "Renaissance 
of the human spirit." From no other source than the article itself, however, 
it is clear that Gelerntner is helping to usher in an authoritarian 
dystopia based on all the latest high-tech vistas, like genetic engineering. 

Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bring- 
ing an unprecedented assault on life? Or is it unethical to just accept 
our passive roles in the current Zeitgeist of postmodern cynicism and 
know-nothingism? Asa friend in California put it recently, when 
justice is against the law, only outlaws can effect justice. 

The lengthy Unabomber manuscript will go undiscussed here; its 
strengths and weaknesses deserve separate scrutiny. These remarks mainly 
shed light on some of the various, mostly negative commentary rather 
than directly on their object. It is often the case that one can most 
readily learn about society by watching its reactions, across the spectrum, to 
those who would challenge it. 

"Well, I believe in FC/Unabomber — it's all over the country ... 
his ideas are, as the situationists said, 'in everyone's heads'; it's just a 
matter of listening to your own rage," from a Midwesterner in the 
know. Or as Anne Eisenberg, from Polytechnic University in Brook- 
lyn, admitted, " Scratch most people and you'll get a Luddite. " 

And from the Boulder Weekly, Robert Perkinson's July 6, 1 995 
column sagely concluded: "Amidst the overwhelming madness of 
unbridled economic growth and postmodern disintegration, is such 
nostalgia, or even such rage, really crazy? For many, especially those who 
scrape by in unfulfilling jobs and peer longingly toward stars obscured by 
beaming street lights, the answer is probably no. And for them, the 
Unabomber may not be a psychopathic demon. They may wish FC the 
best of luck." 


1 5 6 

unning On Emptiness 


Worth noting is a concise article in the March 4, 1993 issue of the 
British journal Nature. Almost 4,000 years of agriculture in central Mexico 
yield a dramatic picture to the research efforts of archaeologists O'Hara, 
Street-Perrot, and Burt. Conclusively debunked is the notion that 
traditional farming methods were more benign that more modern methods. 

Severe soil erosion and other forms of environmental degradation 
commenced, in fact, with agriculture itself. By the time of the Spanish 
conquest (1521 A.D.), contrary to widespread belief, Mesoamerica presented 
anything but a pristine landscape. "Erosion caused by the Spanish 
introduction of plough agriculture," the authors observe from exhaustive 
soil samples, "was apparently no more severe than that associated with 
traditional agricultural methods." As they explain later in the article, "it is 
hard to distinguish any specific impact of the introduction of plough 
agriculture and draught animals by the Spanish after AD. 1521 ." 

The point is plain: domestication is domestication, and embodies a 
qualitatively negative logic for the natural world. Agriculture per se brings a 
ruinous, unidirectional impact, despite the wishful thinking of those 
who envision a coexistence with domestication, consisting of benign, 
"green" methods that would reverse the global destruction of the land. 


The devastation exists on a much more basic level, whose reality 
must be faced. As the article concludes, "There is a move by many 
environmental agencies both in Mexico and elsewhere for a return to 
traditional forms of agriculture, as they are considered to be better for 
the environment. As our findings indicate that traditional farming 
techniques cause significant erosion, it is unlikely that a return to pre- 
historic farming methods would solve the problem of environmental 



Running On Emptiness 


The unprecedented reality of the present is one of enormous sorrow 
and cynicism, "a great tear in the human heart," as Richard Rodriguez 
put it. A time of ever-mounting everyday horrors, of which any news- 
paper is full, accompanies a spreading environmental apocalypse. 
Alienation and the more literal contaminants compete for the leading 
role in the deadly dialectic of life in divided, technology -ridden society. 
Cancer, unknown before civilization, now seems epidemic in a society 
increasingly barren and literally malignant. 

Soon, apparently, everyone will be using drugs; prescription and 
illegal becoming a relatively unimportant distinction. Attention Deficit 
Disorder is one example of an oppressive effort to medicalize the rampant 
restlessness and anxiety caused by a life -world ever more shriveled and 
unfulfilling. The ruling order will evidently go to any lengths to deny 
social reality; its techno-psychiatry views human suffering as chiefly 
biological in nature and genetic in origin. 

New strains of disease, impervious to industrial medicine, begin to 
spread globally while fundamentalism (Christian, Judaic, Islamic) is 
also on the rise, a sign of deeply -felt misery and frustration. And here 
at home New Age spirituality (Adorno's "philosophy for dunces") and 
the countless varieties of "healing" therapies wear thin in their delu- 
sional pointlessness. To assert that we can be whole/enlightened/healed 


within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness. 

The gap between rich and poor is widening markedly in this land 
of the homeless and the imprisoned. Anger rises and massive denial, 
cornerstone of the system's survival, is now at least having a troubled 
sleep. A false world is beginning to get the amount of support it deserves: 
distrust of public institutions is almost total. But the social landscape seems 
frozen and the pain of youth is perhaps the greatest of all. It was 
recently announced (10/94) that the homicide rate among young men 
ages 15 to 19 more than doubled between 1985 and 1991. Teen 
suicide is the response of a growing number who evidently cannot 
imagine maturity in such a place as this. 

The overwhelmingly pervasive culture is a fast-food one, bereft of 
substance or promise. As Dick Hebdige aptly judged, "the postmodern 
is the modern without the hopes and dreams that made modernity 
bearable." Postmodernism advertises itself as pluralistic, tolerant, and non- 
dogmatic. In practice it is a superficial, fast-forward, deliberately confused, 
fragmented, media-obsessed, illiterate, fatalistic, uncritical excrescence, 
indifferent to questions of origins, agency, history or causation. It 
questions nothing of importance and is the perfect expression of a setup 
that is stupid and dying and wants to take us with it. 

Our postmodern epoch finds its bottom-line expression in con- 
sumerism and technology, which combine in the stupefying force of 
mass media. Attention-getting, easily-digested images and phrases dis- 
tract one from the fact that this horror-show of domination is precisely 
held together by such entertaining, easily digestible images and 
phrases. Even the grossest failures of society can be used to try to nar- 
cotize its subjects, as with the case of violence, a source of endless 
diversion. We are titillated by the representation of what at the same 
time is threatening, suggesting that boredom is an even worse torment 
than fear. 

Nature, what is left of it, that is, serves as a bitter reminder of how 
deformed, non-sensual, and fraudulent is contemporary existence. The 
death of the natural world and the technological penetration of every 
sphere of life, what is left of it, proceed with an accelerating impetus. 
Wired, Mondo 2000, zippies, cyber-everything, virtual reality, Artificial 
Intelligence, on and on, up to and including Artificial Life, the ultimate 
nostmodern science 

160 RunningOn 

Meanwhile, however, our "post-industrial" computer age has resulted in the 
fact that we are more than ever "appendages to the machine," as the 19th 
century phrase had it. Bureau of Justice statistics (7/94), by the way, 
report that the increasingly computer-surveilled workplace is now the 
setting for nearly one million violent crimes per year, and that the 
number of murdered bosses has doubled in the past decade. 

This hideous arrangement expects, in its arrogance, that its victims will 
somehow remain content to vote, recycle, and pretend it will all be 
fine. To employ a line from Debord, "The spectator is simply supposed 
to know nothing and deserve nothing. " 

Civilization, technology, and a divided social order are the components 
of an indissoluble whole, a death-trip that is fundamentally hostile to 
qualitative difference. Our answer must be qualitative, not the 
quantitative, more-of-the-same palliatives that actually reinforce what 
we must end. 




Today opposition is anarchist or it is non-existent. This is the barest 
minimum coherence in the struggle against an engulfing totality. 
And while ten years ago the milieu generally called anti-authoritarian 
was largely syndicalist, those leftist residues are fading out altogether. Very 
few now find a vista of work and production at all liberatory. 
As the smell of this false and rotting order rises to the heavens, registering 
an unprecedented toll on all living beings, faith in the whole modern 
world evaporates. Industrialism and its ensemble looks like it has been a 
very bad idea, sort of a wrong turn begun still earlier. Civilization itself, 
with its logic of domestication and destruction, seems untenable. 

After all, is there anyone who is happy in this desolation? 
Lovely new indicators of how it is panning out include increasing self- 
mutilation among the young and murder of children by their own 
parents. Somehow a society that is steadily more impersonal, cynical, de- 
skilled, boring, artificial, depressing, suicide -prompting, used up, drug- 
ridden, ugly, anxiety -causing and futureless brings a questioning as to 
why it has come to this/what's it all about. 

Leftism with its superficial program is nearly extinct. Its adherents 
have folded their tents of manipulation and, in some cases, moved on 
to far more interesting adventures. 


Running On Emptiness 

Anarchism, if not yet anarchy, is the only scene going, even if the blackout 
on the subject is still in effect. As if to match the accelerating 
decomposition of society and displacement of life at large, determined 
resistance is also metamorphosing with some rapidity. The rout of the 
left, following the swiftly declining prestige of History, Progress, and 
techno-salvation, is only one development. The old militants, with 
their ethic of sacrifice and order, their commitment to economy and 
exchange, are already fixed on the museum shelves of partial revolt. 
Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being drawn. This time the 
bohemian schiz-fluxers, Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists, 
condescending organizers of the poor, hip nihilo-aesthetes and all the 
other "anarchists" who thought their pretentious pastimes would go on 
unchallenged indefinitely — well, it's time to pick which side you're on. 
It may be that here also is a Rubicon from which there will be no 
turning back. 

Some, no doubt, would prefer to wait for a perfect victim. Many 
would like to unlearn what they know of the invasive and unchal- 
lenged violence generated everywhere by the prevailing order — in order 
to condemn the Unabomber' s counter-terror. 

But here is the person and the challenge before us. 
Anarchists! One more effort if you would be enemies of this long 



how Ruinous DOES 


Recent developments make an all-encompassing crisis plain to see. 
Society could scarcely be more bizarrely unhealthy, but is getting even 
more so all the time. 

With two million people behind bars, kids as young as two are on behavior 
control drugs like Ritalin. Sunset magazine carries pages of ads for 
"boot camps." "Got an angry child?" "Defiant teen?" 

A recent national study disclosed that emotional disorders among 
children have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Homicidal out- 
bursts at school, as deeply shocking as they are, correspond to murder- 
ous rampages at work or at Burger King. Meanwhile, the trend toward 
year-round schooling feeds into the current prospect of a lifetime of 
more and more hours at work. 

Last November a U.S. News & World Report survey announced that 
over 90 percent of students cheat. No surprise, where a similarly high 
percentage of citizens feel cymcism/no confidence concerning most of 
the ruling institutions. 

Youthful smoking is on the rise; so are binge drinking, and health- 
threatening obesity. And as with adults, kids' levels of anxiety, stress, 
isolation, and boredom are going up. TV fare is shock- and peep-show 
tabloid-oriented for the increasingly jaded. USA Today for 


Running On Emptiness 

July 18 pondered "Why America is so short-tempered," as road rage 
erupts and parents get violent — to the point of murder — at Little 
League games. 

It was recently reported that drug abuse and addiction in Oregon went 
up 232 percent from 1995 to 1999. On the national level, one out of 
every three people say they have felt close to a nervous breakdown at 
some point, according to a study released in early July. Lhe assortment of 
"healing" and alternative therapy approaches multiplies, perhaps in 
proportion to a massive and pervasive denial of the root causes of all 
the suffering and estrangement. 

Meanwhile, afflictions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia 
debilitate many; no specific causes can be found. It is as if a growing 
number of people are simply becoming allergic to society itself. 
So many are now taking pharmaceutical drugs (e.g. antidepressants) 
that they now constitute a significant pollutant. An April issue of 
Science News reported this new form of contamination of water and soil. 
Lhus we now see immiseration in the personal and social spheres meeting 
up with the impoverishment of our physical environment. A graphic 
suggestion that the pain and emptiness felt by human subjects of capital and 
technology is connected to the ongoing destruction of nature (global 
warming, accelerating species extinction, oceans dying, etc.). 

If the salaried thinkers of the dominant emptiness largely continue 
to ignore the glaring fact of engulfing alienation, the word is definitely 
beginning to spread nonetheless. Lhere is an alternative consciousness: 
for example, in the anti-culture of hundreds of underground, do-it- 
yourself zines and pirate radio projects. And it is even showing up 
above ground, in films like Matrix and Fight Club, in novels like Alan 
Lightman's The Diagnosis, and in the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Cri- 
tique is making itself felt in many areas. 

A culture this bereft cannot long sustain itself. Especially if we are 
equal to the task of demolishing it in favor or life, health, freedom, 




The reigning, pervasive cultural ethos is postmodern, with its sharply 
narrowed ambitions concerning thought, its tendency to shade into the 

It began in large part as French reaction against the grand and total 
claims of Marxism. Emerging and spreading about 20 years ago, in a 
period of reaction with almost no social movements, postmodernism 
bears the imprint of a period of conservatism and lowered expectations. It 
is also already a result of the "cyborg" society in which a technical 
imperative tends to subsume or co-opt alternatives. 

Postmodernism tells us that we can't grasp the whole, indeed that 
the desire for an overview of what's going on out there is unhealthy and 
suspect, even totalitarian. I don't argue specifically with postmodernism's 
rejection of Marxism. We have seen, after all, how grand systems — 
"metanarratives," as they are fashionably referred to — have proven 
oppressive rather than liberatory . 

Skeptical about the claims and results of previous systems of 
thought, postmodernism has in fact jettisoned pretty nearly all desire 
or hope of making sense of reality as we experience it. PM abandons 
the "arrogance" of trying to figure out the origins, logic, causality, or 
structure of the world we live in. 


Running on Emptiness 

Instead, postmodernists focus on surfaces, fragments, margins. Reality 
is too shifting, complex, indeterminate to decipher or judge. Too 
"messy," too "interesting" to allow for fixed conclusions, as Donna 
Haraway puts it in her well-known "Cyborg Manifesto." 
Meaning and value are old-fashioned illusions, and so is the practice of 
writing with clarity. The postmodern style is notorious for its word 
play, dense language games, and fondness for contradiction. To cite 
Haraway 's "Cyborg Manifesto" again, she concedes that "the main trouble 
with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of 
militarism and patriarchal capitalism" — but that in no way dims her 
enthusiasm for a cyborg (part human, part machine), high tech future! 
Shared experience and direct experience are two major casualties of an 
increasingly techmfied society. But Haraway and the postmodern crowd in 
general are uncritical of the techno imperative that is so rampantly 
gaining ground and leaching away what little quality and texture is 
left in our everyday lives. Of course, once one renounces any attempt to 
comprehend the overall situation, the door is wide open for technology and 
capital to fill the vacuum. Things grow stark and menacing in every 
sphere, but conclusions are to be avoided. 

Postmodernism celebrates evanescent flows, a state of no boundaries, 
the transgressive. In the actual world, however, this translates as an 
embrace of the unimpeded movement of capital, the experience of 
consumer novelty . As the dimensions of personal robusticity and social 
interaction steadily erode, along with meaning and value, a consumer 
society in cyberspace becomes the uncontested next stage of human 

Postmodernism gives up on understanding how and why the cyborg future 
is overtaking us. Division of labor, domestication, the nature of 
technology — not to mention less abstract factors like drudgery, 
toxicity, the steady destruction of nature — are integral to the high-tech 
trajectory. Of no concern, evidently, to postmodernists, who continue 
to cling to the subtle, the tentative, the narrowly focused. 
Virtual reality is an example that mirrors the postmodern fascination 
with surfaces, explicitly rejoicing in its own depthlessness — one obvious 
way in which it is the accomplice of the Brave New World development. 
No challenge there, no challenge even plausible in the 

How Postmodernism Greases The Rails For The cyborg Future 


collapse and refusal of the possibility of understanding the totality. The 
political counterpart of postmodernism is pragmatism, the tired liber- 
alism that accommodates itself to the debased norm. 

The decay of meaning, passion, inner vibrancy has been going on 
for a while. Max Weber spoke of disenchantment, for instance. But 
postmodernism is the culture of no resistance to this juggernaut. The 
good news is that there are signs of life, signs that folks in various places 
are refusing a cyborg future. 

1 68 

Running On Emptiness 

So . . . How Did You 


I was one of the Baby Boom generation's first arrivals, born in Salem, 
Oregon two years before the end of World War II. My parents and my 
older sister Jackie had moved to Oregon from Nebraska in 1940, looking 
for a break from tough times in the Midwest of the Great Depression. 
Before they came west, Dad worked at a gas station six, and every other 
week, seven days a week. Getting by was not easy. Dreadful winters and 
not always enough food for three. 

The times were less precarious when John and Lorene — both of Bohemian 
forbears as far back as anyone knew — and their nine-year-old daughter 
started over on the West Coast. The prospect of war was spurring the 
economy. Hard times were ending in most places. I showed up in 1943; 
my brother Jim a month after World War II ended, two years later. 
Married in 1929 and having endured a decade of Depression, my 
folks were among many who feared that war's end would mean 
another economic downturn. But Cold War military spending pre- 
cluded the return of lean years, and instead helped kick off the consumer- 
spending economic expansion of the '50s. I grew up in those years, in a 
fairly typical small-town, Catholic, nuclear family world, within the larger 
world of new things like TV, the H-bomb, freeways, 


and a mainly unexamined, triumphalist U.S. world view. I can 
remember — it must have been 1952 — bicycling around the 
neighborhood with a pack of friends shouting "We Like Ike!" And 
around that age, maybe ten, fearing and hating "communists." We had 
by this time moved from Salem to nearby Woodburn, an even smaller 
town, quite an unlikely place to have found any Reds. 
My first baby step away from the conformist know-nothingism of the 
rabidly all-American '50s was to become a strong Adlai Stevensonfor- 
President supporter in 1956. In what way, if any, he was different from 
Eisenhower (who drubbed him in 1952 and 1956) I couldn't have said. 
But I think this enthusiasm was a slight stirring, clueless as it was. 
By the mid-'50s both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. possessed nuclear weapons, 
so strategic competition became focused on missile development — the 
Space Race. The enforced political orthodoxy was buttressed by a major 
emphasis on science and technology. Boys were encouraged to devote 
themselves to these pursuits, in the national interest. In 1957 the Soviets 
launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Their achievement intensified 
the American focus on math, sciences, engineering, and the like. 
Ron, Steve, and I were in the 7th and 8th grades at this time. Caught up in 
the prevailing atmosphere, we were young science nerds with our own 
version of competitive experimentation. We'd gone from chemistry sets to 
the construction of small bombs, thanks to materials ordered from 
chemical supply companies. A pound of sulphur cost $1.00, easily 
affordable even with our meager allowances. Magnesium wire was more 
expensive, and was paid for by our summer work as harvesters in the fields 
near Woodburn. One of our pastimes was coming up with gunpowder- 
like compounds. We competed to see whose compound would oxidize 
fastest while leaving the smallest noncombustible traces. Whoever was least 
efficient was dubbed that week's "Residue King." I recall that Steve was 
usually the mocked monarch. When we entered high school, we left 
our interest in explosives behind. Plus the fact that my dad came 
across the container for our biggest effort yet, and confronted me 
about it. He wasn't angry, but rather shaken, grasping how much 
destruction we could have unleashed. 


Running on Emptiness 

After eight years at St. Luke's School I got a further four years at the 
hands of Benedictines in Mount Angel, just about ten miles from 
Woodburn. Hands were literally involved at Mt. Angel Prep, where 
priests frequently resorted to physical punishment. High school at this 
small, boys-only place next to a monastery was essentially medieval. 
Along with Latin and Church History, the teachers had the divine 
right to clock you whenever they lost their tempers, and promoted brutality 
among the fairly rowdy student body. Juniors and seniors were 
encouraged to shave the heads of any freshman or sophomores caught 
smoking on the school grounds, and for greater or repeated infractions 
there was the "belt line." This meant that the malcontent had to run a 
school assembly gauntlet, whipped by the belts of all students. Those 
who didn't participate were forced to run the gauntlet in turn. 
To gam acceptance, I played football until my senior year. The Friday night 
games really weren't bad. I was far from being an accomplished player, but 
the games were a picnic compared to practices. By my senior year I'd 
become "one of the guys" and decided to forego a last season of 
afternoon torture. At that point it wasn't worth the daily afternoon ordeal of 
brutal drills. 

I mainly stayed out of trouble until just before graduating, when a 
couple of the holy Fathers discovered that their A- student had been 
less the model character than they'd thought. I got whacked in the face 
a few times for my minor troublemaking. 

Apparently somewhat like another bright little bomb-maker at the time — 
Ted Kaczynski in Illinois — fitting in was not always easy. I did have 
some close friends, but generally felt out of place and confused by many 
prevailing norms. I have a vivid recollection even now of watching the 
popular late '50s sitcom, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Certainly 
there wasn't anything even slightly adventurous (or funny) about this 
family of zombies, and the tinny, canned laughter made me feel uneasy 
and left out. Ricky Nelson, Ozzie and Harriet's younger son, was the 
program's teen heartthrob, while I had no idea at all what to say to girls. 
Very slow in this area for some time. 

Maybe I wasn't much more confused or estranged than the average 
adolescent in my vague, uninformed appetite for something different. 
The Beat Generation, as interpreted in cartoon-like fashion by Ufe 


How Did You Become AnAnarchist? 


magazine, represented exotic rebellion to me. Dirty beatniks! Not everyone, 
it seemed, was a smiling, patriotic consumer. Portland, Oregon's Reed 
College seemed a pretty beat place when I visited in my senior year, 
including people sitting on the floor and dogs in the bookstore. The 
campus exuded a non-conformist, intellectual atmosphere that really 
grabbed me. But the priests at my school were decidedly appalled at my 
desire to apply to such a hotbed of godless, bohemian communism. I 
needed three letters of recommendation from teachers and couldn't get 
even one. 

I was thrilled, however, to get a scholarship to Stanford, and enrolled 
Fall, 1961. The Farm, as it has been called since railroad baron 
Leland Stanford founded it in the 1890s, was beginning its ascendancy, 
paralleling the rise of adjacent Silicon Valley and the gradual, overall shift 
of power in the U.S. from the East coast to the Pacific Rim. I was rather 
awed by its palm-, eucalyptus-, and sportscar-studded 10,000 acres, 
complete with lake, fire department, stables, golf course, etc. And 
frankly wondered if I would make the grade, especially against the many 
incoming freshmen from real prep schools: eighteen-year-olds 
incomparably more sophisticated than me, familiar with such things as 
foreign films, folk music, the blues, and Camus (whose name I didn't even 
know how to pronounce). 

One rich kid I knew very slightly dropped out after only a few 
weeks, declaring in a letter to the campus daily that he'd already done 
his "penance" academically and was bored by required, introductory 
courses. I recall standing with my mouth open as he packed his bags to 
go off to Switzerland for the skiing. 

But I learned fairly quickly that flunking out was unlikely, and 
from that point on an inchoate disillusionment began to set in. As a would- 
be beatnik who remained a Catholic, I wasn't really turned on by 
college classes. It was exciting to select interesting-sounding courses at 
the beginning of every term, only to feel later that they were just successive 
pre-packaged elements in a competitive grind for grades. Stanford was and 
is a lot of very intelligent people, minus original thinking: a pretty 
conservative place. 

So I went about in my army fatigue jacket with no real friends, 
the bloom fading from the rose. It was hard to maintain real interest, 
and my grades began to slip. A sojourn in Europe, at Stanford-in-Italy 


Running on Emptiness 

in Florence, at the end of my sophomore year, helped some. Especially 
because I made a few very close friends in the Florentine villa that was 
home for six months. And it was in Italy that I first began to take a 
critical look at social and political life. To improve my Italian I subscribed 
to Umanita, the Communist Party daily. I was struck by the stark 
poverty in Naples when I hitchhiked there. Another watershed during 
that overseas sojourn in 1963 was the bombing of a Birmingham 
church, a racist attack that killed four black children. I don't remember 
discussing it or thinking about it at length, but it had an impact on me. 
Hitchhiking to Naples that summer, I was struck by a tableau in a very 
poor district. An old man and a teenage boy were studying together in an 
old building; the former was apparently teaching the lad something, in the 
neighborhood hall of the Italian Communist Party. I remember coming 
across them and feeling moved by their connection with each other. 
This was perhaps the very beginning of my political life, the start of a 
replacement (or grounding) of values that had before this time been 

In the summer of '63 1 also hitchhiked to Assisi. My Christian faith 
had all but evaporated; I went there to give it a last shot. St. Francis, with 
his love for animals and his innocence, appealed to me. But I found no 
rescusitation of interest in Catholicism. In fact, the church at that 
historic place was curiously modern, and the priest in charge was 
actually from Ohio. Not inspiring. 

Back on the Farm, my focus on school resumed a tendency to blur. I 
was Class of '65, but by early that year I literally couldn't concentrate. 
Upon taking an exam I would find that virtually none of the material 
I'd read came to mind. Some kind of minor breakdown was happening, so 
I got a medical leave of absence, returning to Oregon and enrolling at a 
tiny Willamette Valley college in order to avoid the mounting Vietnam war 

Mt. Angel College, another Benedictine place of learning, was 
metamorphosing in an interesting "sign of the times" direction in 
1965. The liberal arts college had been a safe, Catholic alternative to 
more worldly schools and was often a place where parents sent wayward 
kids for moral improvement. Tike Sarah, nabbed for selling pot at her 
California high school. 

So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 173 

Well, the '60s were already under way in some unlikely places, like 
totally out-of-the-way Mt. Angel College, in 1965. And of course sending 
young people there who were already weirdos and discontents only 
hastened the process by which the inmates overran the asylum. Early 
hippie students and offbeat teachers (especially in the art department) 
lured straighter types into this obscure locus of the just-emerging 
"counter-culture." By 1968, the institution's president would be defrocked 
for siding with students against Benedictine authority. Already, in 
temporary exile in Oregon, it began to seem to me that a new day was 
arriving. In any case, it was a generally fun, healing place to be, just when 
I really needed it. 

Meanwhile, starting just before I dropped out in early '65, something 
new was under way in the Bay Area environs near Stanford.. It was at 
this time, in Berkeley, that the first large-scale anti-Vietnam War 
protest took place. A very dramatic evening march with a sadly anti- 
climactic ending. 

Thousands of us streamed along down Telegraph Avenue, heading for 
the Oakland Army depot on San Francisco Bay. The aim was to proceed 
south through Berkeley, west through Oakland, all the way to the base, 
and then interfere with its operations. Most of the supplies fueling the 
war were being shipped from that particular arms depot. 
We drew up to Ashby Avenue, next to the Berkeley -Oakland boundary, 
and stopped. Across the intersection of Telegraph and Ashby were 
hundreds of Oakland cops, a large phalanx of pigs in riot gear, barring our 

Various speakers discussed this impasse, stressing the need to move 
forward anyway . The mood of the crowd grew stronger in response to 
the challenge we faced. Grew equal to the fear we felt, and then some. 
But at this crucial point, Ken Kesey got to the makeshift podium and 
began playing "Home on the Range" on a harmonica. Slow and plaintive, 
the tune served to deflate the resolve of the thousands of protestors. And 
the march was simply called off. There was some announcement about 
meeting the next day, as I recall, but the evening's showdown was over. 
The main thrust of the ensuing commentary was that cooler and wiser 
heads had prevailed. No one was hurt; common sense and nonviolence 
had overcome temporary passion. 


Running on Emptiness 

And within a very few months, the U.S. government had decided 
on all-out war in Vietnam. An escalating campaign killed upwards of 
four million Asians over the ensuing ten years. 
It didn't dawn on me until much later that there was very likely a 
connection between what happened on that night in Berkeley early in 
1965 and the course of genocidal war in Southeast Asia. Foreign policy 
may have hinged on the protest that didn't happen. Public response to 
war is generally a key factor to be reckoned with, and what occurred in 
Berkeley was token resistance, at best. Since no real opposition was 
expected, the authorities had no political reason to hold back. 
If we had gone forward, people would have been hurt, almost cer- 
tainly. Some might even have been killed. But the government might 
well have decided that serious resistance could be expected if it moved 
forward with a greatly intensified war. 

In other words, we failed that night, and millions died. All the ritual 
peacenik demos of the '60s and early '70s failed. The war ended in 
1975 because Vietnamese kept fighting and because American troops 
began refusing to fight. The route of serious resistance at home was 
ruled out very early on. 

After my time off in Oregon, at Mt. Angel College (it felt mainly like 
time off, in that relaxed, small-town bohemia), I returned to Stanford 
in the fall of '65 to do my last two terms. "The Farm" was the same 
stodgy, isolated place it had always been, but by this time something 
was definitely in the air. Stanford was catching up with Mt. Angel, and 
the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley were now in high gear, if you'll 
pardon the pun. 

The one outrageous scene wasn't on campus — big surprise — but in adjacent 
Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Ken Kesey and fellow party ers including Neal 
Cassidy (soon to be called the Merry Pranksters), the Grateful Dead (a local 
band that had been known until recently as the Warlocks), and LSD, a 
new, defenses-melting drug, combined in all-night phenomena advertised 
as Acid Tests. ("Can You Pass the Acid Test?") 

With a couple of friends who were more in the know, I attended an 
Acid Test in a vintage ex-roller rink. We opened some swinging doors and 
the first thing I saw was Neal Cassady, standing nearby with a 
microphone in his mouth, having several simultaneous conversations 

So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 175 

with people who weren't there. I backed out of the doors in a 
hurry, having stumbled onto full-out insanity. After a few short look-ins, 
coming inside briefly but staying near the front entrance, I got used to 
the prevailing madness. I wasn't ready yet to sample the acid Kool-Aid, 
but enjoyed the daring zone of anti-normality, including a slide show 
by Kesey, "America Needs Indians." 

A few months later I went to LA. for an Acid Test in a large pornography 
film studio on Pico Boulevard. In the morning we drove out to the 
beach, and I saw snowmen on all the lawns and an aircraft carrier up 
ahead of us on the freeway. We collapsed on the sand and woke up 
many hours later, badly sunburned. 

I even had a course or two that I actually enjoyed, with the finish line 
coming into view. A degree in political science is surely a monument 
to wasted time, but I remember a substantial seminar on Marxism, and I 
began to delve more into history, which should have been my major all 
along — a better chance to learn some content. 

In my final term I lucked into a colloquium on the Russian Revo- 
lution, taught by none other than the head of the provisional govern- 
ment in 1917, Alexander Kerensky. Premier between the fall of the 
Czar in March and the Bolshevik takeover in October, he was now an 
elderly gentleman, his white hair crew-cut. He was also, not too sur- 
prisingly, quite passionate about his fall from power and the "unprinci- 
pled" tactics of his successful rival Lenin. Sitting next to him at a screening 
of Eisenstein's classic silent film, "Ten Days That Shook the World," I 
watched him in profile as much as I watched the film. In a pivotal 
scene, the crowd breaks into the palace; the actor playing Kerensky appears 
on a grand staircase, first running up and then running down, a symbol of 
his political vacillation in the face of contending social forces. Sitting 
in the dark in early 1966, almost 40 years after that momentous day, 
Kerensky watched, agitated and upset, reliving his own history. 
I graduated at the end of winter term and the April 1 date on my A.B. 
degree was not completely lost on me. By then, the '50s were finally at an 
end and things were beginning to get crazy, especially in the Bay Area. I 
recall an episode one evening in nearby Menlo Park before I left Stanford. 
In a car with Neal Cassady and a classmate who was a friend of his, we 
pulled into a gas station, where Neal jumped 


Running on Emptiness 

out to deal with the high-school-age attendant. He popped the 
hood, went around checking the tires, climbed in and out of the car, while 
feverishly bombarding the kid with comments and questions, including 
a complicated query about green stamps (a promotional giveaway of the 
day). The attendant's mouth was agape and he was probably as freaked as 
I had been upon my first encounter with Cassady. He moved 
slowly backward, broke into a run, and fled into the night down a side 
street. Our mad driver concluded that green stamps would not be 
forthcoming and drove off, gasoline on the house. 

I returned to Oregon and got a job washing dishes in a big retirement 
complex near Portland. With the troop buildup in Vietnam heading 
toward half a million, the draft was nailing everyone in sight. Without my 
student deferment, it was clear that official greetings would be in the 
mail within a month or two. 

No thanks to Stanford, I'd become increasingly aware of the repressive 
and destructive nature of the reigning system, and was by now totally 
opposed to the Vietnam war. Two friends and I pledged that we'd go 
to Mexico together should we pass the draft board physical. 
At the Selective Service center in Portland that spring of 1.966, the 
three of us were more than a little worked up. In fact, I'd gotten drunk 
and overturned my VW into a ditch a few nights before. Luckily, the 
passengers and myself were not injured. 

John and I played the physical as a kind of psychodrama, with emphasis on 
the psycho. John as a crazed, manic weirdo, me as a virtually catatonic 
weirdo. (In less than a year the induction centers would be a lot more 
wised up to such fakery.) Ken, who'd had a tree fall on his foot, 
breaking most of its bones, was fairly quickly sent home. "You 
can't march on that. Just have your doctor send us the x-rays," the 
Army examiner said. Guess who, some months later and unbeknownst to 
John and me, ended up in Vietnam. 

With a permanent deferment, I promptly returned to California and 
got a job at the Shell Oil refinery in Martinez, just north of Berkeley. 
But the work ranged from generally boring to occasionally dangerous, 
and in a few months I headed for the Haight-Ashbury . 

At this point I need to explicitly restrict the scope of this mini- 
memoir, because I can't see another way forward with it. In the interest 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 177 

of protecting the privacy of others, this account will avoid most 
personal relationships. I'll skirt the pitfalls of saying too little or too 
much about others — and, I must admit, the pitfall of how to honestly 
acquit myself in an area of great importance. Certain people have 
meant a lot to me personally, and still do. 

1966 was the banner year for the fabled Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of 
San Francisco. On block after square block, suddenly there were 
hippies everywhere. LSD, free rock music, instant camaraderie.... A new 
scene was booming, change was definitely in the air. People were 
partying and laughing at the old world. Kesey and the Pranksters had 
moved up the Peninsula from the Stanford environs; Kesey had been 
busted twice for pot and failed to appear in court. Conforming to the 
spirit of the Haight, he would appear in adjacent Golden Gate Park in 
outrageous disguises to thumb his nose at the many cops — including 
FBI — who were after him. So many knew it was him, but the heat was 
in the dark; quite hilarious, even though he was caught fairly soon, 
driving in a car on a Bay Area freeway. 

Dropouts were arriving from all over and the place was becoming quite 
the exotic tourist attraction. A showdown of sorts came on Easter weekend, 
1967. City Hall decided that bus service was to be diverted from Haight 
Street to the streets on either side of it, apparently to better 
accommodate the almost bumper-to-bumper traffic of 
"straights" driving through to gawk at the colorful inhabitants. It was 
pretty clear that the choice was to acquiesce to this policy or to defend 
the Haight as a liberated zone. 

Only a handful of us showed up to block traffic and oppose the increased- 
traffic plan. Hippies, then as now, proved passive rather than resistant, and 
the fate of the 'hood was sealed. The heyday of HaightAshbury was over, 
and in rather short order a joyful, expansive spirit was replaced by a 
large-scale "back to the land" retreat and a sharp rise in the use of non- 
psychedelic hard drugs among those remaining. Berkeley, on the other 
hand, was still coming on, as a very politicized center of anti-war 
organizing and other increasingly militant directions. In late summer 
'66 I got arrested at a big, stupid "civil disobedience" anti-war demo 
and spent 15 days in the Contra Costa County jail. This was the first and 
last time I was lame enough to present myself to be arrested. 


Running on Emptiness 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the end of the year, I'd run out 
of money and taken a job as a public welfare caseworker for the City 
and County of San Francisco. At age 23, 1 was still just beginning to 
think about how the world ran and what I could do about it. The four 
years I spent at the Department of Social Services were to prove, as they 
say, a learning experience. 

In fact, an experience of some consequence happened soon after I took 
the job. I happened to work in the vicinity of a guy who was about to 
retire — a quiet old lifer named Donnelly who'd never uttered a peep 
against the workings of the welfare system. At ten minutes to 5:00 p.m. 
on his very last day, he was given the boot. Incredible as it sounds, the 
downtown brass fired him at the last moment, so as to avoid paying his 
retirement pension. 

Not too surprisingly, there was an enormous uproar. It was an 
unbelievable outrage, especially now that "the Sixties" — that part of 
the decade that tried to count for something — was now showing up. 
The union, a local of the Services Employees International (SEIU), 
always beloved by liberals, said that nothing could be done, and refused 
to make any effort on Donnelly's behalf. This was a classic instance of 
the collusion and corruption of unions in general. 

Virtually overnight, an independent union was formed. A militant, do- 
it-yourself outfit, hated by Organized Labor as much as by City Hall. It 
was exciting and instructive to be a part of this wide-open experiment in 
radical democracy. We decided against having any paid organizers or 
officers, and rejected signing any contract with the City and County. 
Membership would be strictly voluntary, ruling out the possibility of a 
"closed shop" arrangement in which union dues become an 
automatic paycheck deduction. I served as vice-president in 1967 and 
president in 1968. Our union — sedately named the Social Services 
Employees Union — came to encourage members to invent positions 
according to their agitational interests and then "run" for election to the new 
positions as a kind of ratifying process. Dues were whatever amount an 
individual chose to contribute. SSEU militants drew up an organizers' 
manual intended to encourage a prairie fire of constant challenges to the 
authority of the welfare bureaucracy. Workers — caseworkers, clerks, 
public hospital employees — were invited, for example, to file endless 
grievances, through a process 

So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 179 

designed to spread participation with unlimited assistance and open 
testimony. All negotiations were designed to be transparent, with every 
concession merely an opening to further demands. We constantly exposed 
the logic of public policy as repressive control of poor people, and the 
police role of Organized Labor in its parallel control of employees. 
Early on, we held a public meeting with Emmett Grogan and the 
Diggers, to explore possible common round in the area of radically- 
based social services. But we found very little commonality. Our 
organizing-on-the-job approach didn't appeal to the D'ggers, who were 
free-wheeling drop-outs. 

The ultimate goal was to destabilize the system from the inside and to 
achieve an alliance between welfare workers and welfare recipients. We 
failed, misreading our possibilities for spontaneous action in general and 
our role as paid agents of government in particular. A rare example of 
connection occurred when the bureaucracy tried to fire a very active 
union militant. Scores of public assistance clients showed up at City 
Hall and turned the tide, saving Charley's job. But without an explicit 
critique of the overall setup, SSEU was fated to play a reformist, if noisy 
part; similarly, there was no convincing reason why our welfare clients 
should find themselves working with us. 

But for a time, we felt we'd discovered a liberating "third way," steering 
between an inherently complicit unionism and the various groupings of 
authoritarian Marxism, so prevalent in the '60s. journalists would get 
the word and excitedly write feature stories about our experimental effort. 
Not a single story was published, however, demonstrating what we saw as a 
kind of contemporary fascism. Government, unions, and business united 
against this kind of independent activity. We tried to spread our little 
contagion to other, mainly white-collar workplaces, and did get asked 
for organizing advice. A couple of times, the Black Panthers sought our 
help in terms of members who drove buses and cable cars. For all the 
Panthers' militant courage in the streets, they were at a loss in terms of 
protecting themselves on the job. All these experiences tended to 
encourage our workerist illusions. 

SSEU was what I mainly did from late 1966 to early 1971, with 
occasional weekend rioting across the Bay in Berkeley during '68 and 
'69. As time went on in the Department of Social Services, my 


Running on Emptiness 

(unpaid, of course) union role more and more outstripped my case- 
worker role, and organizing began to feel problematic in itself. I was 
increasingly bothered by what seemed like a fatal flaw inherent in the 
organizing mode. I still feel that organizing entails trying to get people 
to do things without fully revealing the program, vision, or agenda 
that's behind the organizing. Of course, if there's no transcendent 
radical orientation and goal behind the effort, then it's just reform, pure 
and simple. But if there is a radical goal, more or less hidden, then 
how can the organizing activity not be seen as inherently manipulative? 
During most of this period, it had seemed to me that unless one had a 
job there could be no leverage on society. Action in the streets, however 
militant and dangerous, was misplaced, could not have much effect. But 
this outlook was losing its appeal for me. Transparency was becoming a 
more important factor, as I thought about ways to try to overturn the 
dominant order. In this sense, some of the ideas of the Situationists had a 
big effect on my thinking, from the time I first learned about them, 
around 1970. Their no-holds-barred critiques of the many varieties of 
leftism appealed to me in a big way. I was never in full accord with all 
their theses, but the non-manipulative, up-front quality of the Sits was 
instantly refreshing. 

The radical, often visionary outlook of the Situationist International 
did not, alas, reach the U.S. (and the West coast in particular) in time 
to influence "The Movement" much at all. Similarly, the radical 
women's movement didn't arrive until 1969, too late to have a chance to 
deepen and enlighten the '60s. As for the anarchists, I'm not aware that 
they played more than a very slight role. Anarchists seemed pretty 
invisible, their activities usually confined to the archaic, mini-bureaucratic 
realm of the IWW. These anarcho-syndicalists were characteristically 
uncritical of unionism, the prevailing leftism, and other impediments to 
revolution. They seemed virtually unaware of the global wave of 
opposition during the '60s. 

In the early 1970s I took notice of how much organizing I'd been 
doing and also, how much writing. The writing was mostly about the 
deeply collaborationist nature of unions, their key role in a state/busi- 
ness/organized labor system that is designed to freeze out independent, 
potentially radical modes of activity. Mainly via their legally binding 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 181 

labor-management contracts and strictly bureaucratic 
structures, unions enforce and legitimate the conditions and the very 
existence of wage labor. Coinciding with the height of my interest in 
this subject arose a much-publicized "revolt against work" 
phenomenon. Suddenly a spate of articles appeared that acknowledged 
widespread absenteeism, employee turnover, sabotage, drug use on the 
job, wildcat strikes, etc. A kind of non-political or underground resistance 
seemed to have replaced the public radicalism of the '60s. A more explicit 
kind of underground opposition was also present at this time, 
exemplified by groups like the Black Liberation Army and Weather 

In early 1971 I began graduate studies in U.S. history at San Fran- 
cisco State, earning an MA. degree the following year. This was chiefly 
a way to pursue my research/writing interests and to indulge my own 
aversion to work. "Organized Labor and the Revolt Against Work" was 
published in a 1973 issue of the radical theory journal Telos. 
After a month or so in Europe, I enrolled at the University of Southern 
California in the fall of '72. This mediocre place was adequate for 
my purposes, and it was primarily my own labor studies/social 
control topics that I pursued there until 1975. Approaching the completion 
of a Ph.D. program and having never intended to become a professor, it 
was time to move on. During the last two years at USC I had been a 
teaching assistant, a job whose light duties offered free tuition and office 
space. In fact, my failure to be properly obsequious in the feudal game of 
prostrating oneself before an all-powerful doctoral committee of 
"superiors" had placed me increasingly on their shit list, as I discovered. 
Just before I took the two weeks of written qualifying exams required 
for Ph.D. candidacy, I was told that my assistantship would not be 
renewed for the following year. Every professor I'd worked for had 
allegedly had problems with me. Since none of them had every 
expressed dissatisfaction to me personally, I concluded that this move 
was simply intended to mess me up during the exams that were to 
commence the next day. I passed the exams and resigned, expressing 
my contempt in a flippant postcard to the chairman of my committee. 
There was a little problem of about $13,000 (mainly in student 
loans), but at that time debt could be disposed of easily. With the 
help of some kind of "people's law services" in Echo Park, I filed for 


Running on Emptiness 

bankruptcy on the entire amount. Redfaced with anger, the judge 
demanded to know what would happen if everyone were to do the 
same, what of the deserving poor, etc. We both knew he had no 
choice but to sign away what I owed. In the elevator going downstairs 
from the courtroom, my people's lawyer expressed some agreement 
with the judge's attitude. If there had been any doubt, that remark 
made it a certainty that he wasn't going to be paid either. 

So ended three years in L.A. Returning to San Francisco in 1975, it 
was clear that the days of contestation were not only gone, but were 
unlikely to return anytime soon. I continued to publish in Telos off an 
on during the 70s, and thanks to Fredy Perlman I discovered and 
began a relationship with Fifth Estate of Detroit before the end of 75. 
Writing, drinking a lot, getting by on short-term jobs, unemployment 
benefits, a few small-time scams. 

I was also thinking about what the '60s meant — how far the movement 
did and didn't go, why it ended — questions along those lines. My work 
had become more history- and theory -oriented, as can happen when 
contemporary reality becomes less promising. Exploring the roots of 
unionism, I discovered the Luddite revolts and delved into early 
industrial capitalism. The idea that the factory system arose in large part 
to corral and subdue a dispersed and autonomous population was a big 
revelation, and led to further questions about technology. If a mode of 
production initiated in the late 18th century had, built-in, a social 
control intentionality, where else was this kind of dimension also present? 
I began to consider that perhaps technology is never neutral, that it 
expresses or embodies the values desired by a dominant group. 

1977 was the year of the original punk rock explosion in San Fran- 
cisco, imported from its birth in the U.K. about a year earlier. No one 
thought its vehemence was the rebirth of the '60s, but it occasioned an 
exciting outburst of nihilist energy . Punk might be thought of as a kind 
of aftershock of the '60s quake, although many punkers were explicitly 
contemptuous of that earlier scene (especially of hippies). The first blast 
of raw, angry punk was bracing as hell, and some went further than music 
performance. For instance, a small bunch went up to Pacific Heights more 
than once to bash new Mercedes, BMWs, and the like with chains and 
metal bars. More characteristic, of course, were the 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


drug O.D.s that occurred all along, even during the 1977 heyday, as 
well as later. 

By early 78 the initial rush was over, particularly for the more political 
types like myself who secretly hoped that punk might actually re-ignite 
significant resistance. '60s illusions and groundless idealism were 
effectively dead and the new defiance of punk went deeper, even with its 
cynical overlay. Or so it seemed for a season. 

By this time alcohol had become a serious problem for me, 
adversely affecting my relationships (that's putting it euphemistically) and 
bringing the writing pretty much to a stop. At the end of the decade I'd 
been kicked out of a group household for stupid, drunken behavior and 
was living with some illegals in a Mission district flat furnished with 
broken castoffs. I suppose the latter was appropriate, given that Id 
helped burn the furniture where I lived before, for no known reason. During 
the next couple of years I routinely drank myself into blackout states, with 
killer hangovers and zero memory of the nights before. My only steady 
income came from selling my plasma twice a week. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco was becoming less and less tolerable. Both 
the rents and the number of insane people wandering the streets were 
on the rise. So many people in the Bay Area, but no one, apparently, 
fighting the ugly, lying system. My friend Joe was doing a life term at 
Folsom, and I was never far from feelings of impotent rage over that. 
In an evasive effort to curb my drinking I ended up completely 
hooked on tranquilizers, needing more and more of them and still not 
drinking less. In short, I was a mess. 

In March 1981, I moved back to Oregon. In the Portland Grey- 
hound station I saw a crowd gathering around a black man who was 
holding a very small portable TV and chuckling. The news was 
coming in that Reagan had been shot. Nearby, a contingent of Oregon 
State University students were preparing to board their bus to Corval- 
lis. I could hear outright laughter and joking about the shooting among 
members this group. They were bound for a campus known as fairly 
conservative, at a moment when it wasn't clear whether Reagan was dead 
or alive. 

That spring and summer I worked in Newport, on Oregon's 
central coast, first at a shrimp cannery and then as a waiter. One weekend 
some friends from Seattle visited me and a strav comment. 


Running on Emptiness 

not pursued at the time, registered and got under my skin. As we drove 
to a lake to go swimming, someone said, "I don't think the term revolution 
has meaning anymore." My unspoken reaction was twofold: I didn't like 
hearing that, and I knew for some reason that it was true. 

As noted above, I'd already been doing some historical exploring 
of the role of technology in society. My friend's comment deepened 
the questioning and also brought contemporary radical practice into 
my research. His remark implied that the efforts of the '60s just 
weren't deeply oriented enough to have qualified as liberatory. "Revo- 
lution" now seemed inadequate, and I was challenged by the question 
of what would go far enough. 

Back in Los Angeles, in the mid-'70s, I had put out flyers that sported 
the name "Upshot" and an Echo Park P.O. box address. This was 
influenced by our SSEU habit of daily agitational leaflets, and by critiques 
that the Situationists embodied in their pamphlets. Sometimes one or 
two other people helped with the Upshot flyers, and the practice had 
persisted in San Francisco during the second half of the decade. I resumed 
creating flyers on my own after moving to Eugene in the fall of 1981. 

Library facilities at the University of Oregon constituted the main 
reason for the move, the better to pursue answers to various questions 
about the depth of alienated society and what a dis-alienated world 
might consist of. On a more prosaic level, my main source of income 
continued to be twice -weekly visits to the local plasma center. My own 
alienation was underlined as I stood in line early one morning waiting 
for the center to open. A woman in an expensive car, stopped at a traffic 
light, looked at our disreputable ranks with evident disgust. I remember 
feeling pleased to be standing where I was, not part of the terrorized-by- 
consumer-goods class. 

The early '80s were a take-off point for high-tech developments, 
especially computerization in general, and the appearance of personal 
computers in particular. New and grandiose predictions from the Artifi- 
cial Intelligence people seemed emblematic of a new stage of estrangement 
and dehumamzation, succinctly expressed by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky's 
pronouncement that "the brain is a three-pound computer made of 
meat. " It was hard not to notice that social existence was being rapidly 
techmfied as a key part of growing estrangement. We were 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


becoming more and more separated from the natural world, each other, 
and even our own experience. 

It began to occur to me that the sense of time, and time as a cul- 
tural dimension, were fundamental to the development of this 
massive alienation. I spent most of 1982 exploring time as a fairly 
exact measure of alienation, appearing and developing in tandem with 
it. According to anthropologists, humans once lived in the present, 
with little or no consciousness of that very elusive thing we call time. 
How is it that we are now so ruled by time, as some kind of external, 
almost palpable presence over our consciousness? Time seems to be the 
first form of estrangement. The separation from the now that has 
grown so markedly that our lives are much more past and future than 
present to us. 

When I didn't have to work, the U of library was my haunt, 
seven days a week at times. At this time I began to see what a paradigm 
shift had occurred, during the past couple of decades, in how 
anthropologists and archaeologists viewed the state of humankind 
before agriculture. Though Homo species had been around for more 
than two million years, the "breakthrough" had happened only 10,000 
years ago, with the domestication of animals and plants. And the 
overall picture of humans before agriculture had long portrayed a pre- 
carious, violent, benighted existence. Outside of civilization (which quickly 
followed once we had achieved domestication), life had been, in Hobbes' 
famous dictum, "nasty, brutish, and short." 

The new view is a virtual reversal of that general outlook. The lit- 
erature and its supporting evidence have established gatherer-hunter 
human life-99 percent of our span as Homo — as one of ample 
leisure time, no organized violence, a strong degree of gender auton- 
omy and equality, and healthy, varied, robust lives. In broadest overview, 
this is what is taught now in Anthropology 101. Scholars who used to 
ask, "Why did it take our ancestors so long to adopt agriculture?" now 
wonder, "Why did they ever do it?" 

We've always known what followed the trading in of a foraging lifeway 
for that of farming: war, private property, subjugation of women, ecological 
destruction, and the state, to name a few results. Now we see what 
preceded it and what a horrible bargain it was, and continues to be. The 
logic of domestication is ever clearer, as civilization demonstrates 


Running on Emptiness 

its destructive impacts on every level from the personal to the biospheric. 

Five years of the 1980s were taken up with essays on time, lan- 
guage, number, art, and agriculture, published in Fifth Estate. They all 
deal with origins of our present imprisonment, whose foundation may 
be traced to the intertwined advance of division of labor and symbolic 
culture, leading to and extending domestication. These explorations 
were published in Elements of Refusal (Seattle: Left Bank Books, 1988) and 
are much of the basis for Future Primitive (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 

In the mid-'80s "Upshot" became "Anti- Authoritarians Anony- 
mous," flyers and posters by Dan and myself In that era of retrench- 
ment and reaction, almost no radical activity could be found. We had 
to content ourselves with cultural critique, often employing the detourning 
of ads and other public images, and ridiculing the pious nonsense of the 
local pacifists. We didn't exactly rouse the populace to insurrection, but it 
was nice to find out that our broadsides came to adorn a few folks' 

Quiet times, but in addition to writing projects and the AAA flyers 
I enjoyed a growing and far-flung correspondence. Thanks to wonderful 
Alice, I was able to stop the alcohol abuse. It was also good to come to 
have a closer tie with my family, beginning about this time. Not only 
just the moving back to Oregon in 1981, but especially a rapprochement 
with my conservative father. He'd been burned by Nixon's Watergate 
debacle and more or less concluded that the political system — 
including Social Security — didn't have much of a future. He was now 
less inclined to condemn my shirker, non-commercially viable ways. 
Some do "mellow with age," and it was apparent that he enjoyed my visits. 
In the '90s it would also be evident, to dust off another cliche, that the 
child becomes parent to the parents. My sister, living next door to 
them, a hundred miles closer, shouldered far more of the responsibility 
for them in their last years. But a basically close family drew closer, and 
after our parents' deaths my sister and I have drawn still nearer each other. 

If the first half of the 1960s are more properly thought of as part of 
the dreaded '50s, the first half of the '90s belonged to the dead zone of 
the preceding decade. These were the years of Milli Vanilli, the Waco 
inferno, Kurt Cobain's suicide, the O..T. Simpson trial, and the 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


high-water mark of postmodern cynicism and collaboration. There was 
also the L.A. rising in 1992, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa 
the year before, but overall American life seemed, to embody the con- 
tinuing stasis of a too-slowly rotting culture. The fall of the state capi- 
talist Soviet Union in 1990 gave market capitalism a boost toward a 
more global, closed system. The penetration of capital into new 
spheres of daily life paralleled a colonization that was being speeded up 
all over the world with technology, as ever, its close partner. Not only 
do Cyberspace and Virtual Reality express avoidance and denial in terms of 
what was and is being obliterated of nature and direct experience. They 
also represent new realms for domination itself. A growing misogyny is 
perhaps the ugliest, worsening aspect of a society that is becoming 
increasingly separated from the authenticity of direct accountability. 

In the mid-'90s the wind began to turn and instances of resistance 
cropped up, including the dramatic appearance of the Zapatista move- 
ment in southern Mexico and the seemingly unstoppable 
"Unabomber" attacks on various people bringing on the Brave New 

I'd moved across town in '83 from the University area to the 
Whiteaker, Eugene's oldest and only diverse neighborhood. In fact, I've 
lived on or within a half block of 4th and Adams, and have been part 
of a 22-household housing co-op there since late 1987. The fact that it 
is essentially run by women is such a big plus in terms of meetings and 
other interactions — the main reason, it occurs to me, why I've stayed 
involved for so long. 

Nearby, Icky's Tea House (1993-97) was the site of the first stir- 
rings of resistance in the 'hood. Aside from some of the frequent punk 
music shows there, virtually everything was free, including a bike repair 
corral, lending library, and weekly film evenings. Copwatch was born 
there, and a benefit for Ted Kaczynski was held in May, 1996. Ickys 
was an anti-commercial haven for various folks who didn't feel at home 
in the prevailing work-pay -die ethos. The cops increasingly harassed the 
place, aided decisively by a local liberal columnist and the liberal owner of 
a neighborhood natural food grocery. The latter campaigned furtively to 
pressure the building's owner to sever Icky's lease and to cause the last- 
minute veto of a grant from a church. Good oT 

188 Running on Emptiness 

Icky 's went under after four years, victim of the surrounding pig 
culture and some of its enforcers. 

The Unabomber became very big news in 1995, following his last 
fatal parcel. It had been sent to Gilbert Murray of Sacramento, head of 
public relations for the clear-cutting of the remaining forests in the Western 
states. The New York Times determined that my writings were quite 
similar to the critique of technology ideas being expressed in Unabomber 
public statements. I agreed to talk with a reporter about the nature of 
technology, its deeply negative logic, etc. The result was a longish, early 
May piece in the Times that ended the obscurity in which I'd operated. 

The authorities' futile efforts to end the by -then seventeen-year 
stretch of bombings by the Unabomber (a name jointly conferred by 
the FBI and the media) made headlines in the summer of '95. I got 
the impression that I was among the suspects that season when my 
mail was interfered with for some weeks, and my house was burglar- 
ized. Several letters that I knew were sent to me never arrived, and the 
break-in resulted in the removal of only two items: my address book 
and a pair of fairly old sneakers. 

In the fall the Washington Post published "Industrial Society and its 
Future," the so-called "Unabomber Manifesto." In essence, the essay 
demonstrates that the progress of technological society means less and 
less freedom and fulfillment for the individual. Federal authorities rec- 
ommended the release of this extremely cogent 30,000-word treatise, 
following its author's promise to suspend his bombing campaign if it 
was made widely available. Ted Kaczynski's brother David snitched on 
him to the FBI after noting strong similarities between Ted's writings 
and "Industrial Society"; he was arrested in April '96 at his tiny Montana 

Our correspondence soon commenced and I first visited him, at the 
Sacramento County Jail, one year later. There were no fewer than three 
members of his legal team present at our visit, and enroute I was asked 
to try to persuade him to accept their version of an insanity defense. 
Amazed at such a request, I ignored it. Between April '97 and Ted's 
sentencing in May 1998, we had four encounters. I would take the 
overnight Amtrak and go to his Federal Defenders' offices for a legal 
escort to the jail. Ted's lawyers, headed by Quinn Denvir and 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


Judy Clarke, told me that a lawyer's presence was necessary to secure 
the privacy of visits. Only later it became clear that the primary con- 
sideration wasn't so much to make sure that we couldn't be overheard 
by the authorities as it was for the lawyers to monitor and police our 

I found Kaczynski very sharp and unassuming, with a sense of humor. 
His comments and questions always seemed appropriate and spontaneous, 
though at times he could be a bit formal. Facing the death penalty and 
always with legal accompaniment, the situation in terms of visits wasn't 
ideal for free and relaxed communication. But it wasn't only our similar 
ideas about technology that made for some preestablished rapport. Although 
we discussed very little about our family histories, we shared some personal 
background that probably contributed to our speaking a common 
language. Of Slavic heritage, we'd both grown up in the pro-math and 
science Sputnik era and as kids made bombs with our chemistry sets. 
We were bright achievers who later turned our backs on academe, 
pursuing "independent study." In fact, we each had younger brothers who 
were social workers, and fathers who succumbed to cancer. 

During the summer of '97, with Ted's trial set to begin in the fall, I 
began to feel some of the mounting pressure. More than obviously, the 
real heat was on him; but quite willingly, I'd gotten pulled into the pre- 
trial drama — without benefit of being really included. With a stroke, it 
seemed, the Unabomber critique had opened a new era of possibility, and 
this was and is of enormous importance to me. More to the point, there 
was a specific life on the line, a person I was getting to know, involving 
a heavy emotional identification. My problem was that I was in the dark 
as to what role I really had in his defense. At times it seemed that he 
was relying on me for something, but weeks of silence might follow an 
intense letter, with occasional, but sometimes cryptic phone calls from his 
lawyers, which never clarified things. 

A related frustration had to do with the desire a few of us had to 
try to campaign on his behalf, mainly by drawing attention to the 
cogent ideas of "Industrial Society and its Future." Lydia "Boston 
had used a semi-serious "Unabomber for President" effort ln '96 to 
draw attention to critical Unabomber theses, and a scattered handful 
of us were in touch, wanting to expand pro-Ted efforts. The defense 


Running On Emptiness 

attorneys had made it clear that they were opposed to politicizing the 
case, as if that dimension of it wasn't already entirely obvious. So I saw 
Ted in August and made the pitch for his permission to go ahead in 
that direction. His response, not what we'd hoped to hear, echoed the 
larger dilemma of the case. He said something like, "Wow, that sounds 
good. I hope you can persuade my lawyers! " 

Jury selection began in November, and when Ted entered the 
courtroom for the first time he nodded to me, precipitating a minor 
stampede of reporters my way during morning recess. "Who are you?" 
"Do you know Kaczynski?" etc. I said nothing and was shielded by a 
junior member of the legal team, my anonymity remaining intact. Through 
the second floor window of the Sacramento federal courthouse, I 
looked out on a block-long row of press tents and satellite dishes of the 
national and international press corps. 

A flurry of expected motions and counter-motions next brought 
the trial itself into view as the end of 1997 loomed. December revealed 
the essence of what had been going on behind the scenes for some time, 
ably told, by the way, in Bill Finnegan's March 16, 1998 New Yorker 
article, "Defending the Unabomber." Ted's federal defender lawyers were 
anti-death penalty liberals, whose entire focus was saving his life. It 
seems that the feds had promptly reneged on the FBI promise of a year and 
a half earlier to David Kaczynski (dubbed "the Unasquealer" by David 
Letterman), to not seek the death penalty if he would betray his brother. 
In pursuit of their objective the lawyers finessed Kaczynski along, keeping 
him in the dark by controlling all access to outside reality and denying 
that they were really fashioning an insanity defense. That they were 
lying to him began to become quite apparent when their almost daily 
comments to the press belied this entirely, while he was doing 
everything he could to prove his sanity and thus the meaning or 
necessity of the Unabomber actions. Ted's lawyers, by this point, were 
constantly portraying their client to the reporters as delusional and 
paranoid schizophrenic. 

Into January the defense strategy was rather openly a race to the 
wire, the lawyers' effort to hold onto an insanity orientation up to the 
decisive point in the trial before Kaczynski figured out what they were 
really doing in his name. By this time, various media types could see 
what was happening. Before each day's proceedings some of them 

So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


would even call out cynical taunts to Denvir and Clarke: "Got control 
of him?" One could see their anger, as illusions faded away. Judge Burrell 
made it clear that he saw Ted as quite sane, offering his judgment on 
one occasion, in camera, that the attorney's client had a better grasp of 
the case than they did. 

Finally it began to dawn on Kaczynski that the lawyers had not 
been truthful, and he started to rethink his trusting reliance on them. I 
had been loath to volunteer my impressions and doubts, which admit- 
tedly had been slow in forming. And mail to Ted was always routed through 
his lawyers' office; by this time I suspected that they were keeping some 
letters from him. As with visits, the mail needed the legal transit for 
"security reasons"; this guaranteed the lawyers' control over what Ted 
could discuss or read. 

He now phoned me on occasion, mainly to ask me to help him 
connect with radical San Francisco lawyer Tony Serra, though he was 
hesitant about firing the lawyers he'd depended upon for so long. Serra 
told me to let Ted know that it was urgent for him to fire the lawyers; 
the time to make such a move was running out. Serra's office set up a 24- 
hour phone line to receive word from me about what Ted decided, in 
case he couldn't communicate directly. 

In mid- January 1998, the clock did indeed run out for Ted. He 
tried to sack his lawyers in favor of Serra, and when that was denied 
asked to be permitted to represent himself The judge ruled that it was 
too late for either course, and further decreed that the trial would go 
forth not only with his present representation, but also with their 
insanity argument as his defense. 

What Ted most feared had come to pass: he and his thinking 
would be portrayed to the world as crazy. After a failed suicide 
attempt, he accepted a plea agreement of life in prison for an admis- 
sion of guilt. Further humiliation was avoided and his life was spared, 
at the cost of not being allowed to establish that he was not a 

In terms of my own minor role in all this, something happened 
about a month earlier that "outed" me a good deal more than the May 
'95 New York Times article had done. At the beginning of December, 
Ted asked me to arrange for Christine Craft to visit him. She was a 
writer for the Sacramento Weekly who had been in court everv dav and 


Running on Emptiness 

whose accounts, often critical of the way the defendant was being 
treated, impressed him. 

I called and got her excited assent to the prospect of a visit. I told 
her to contact the Federal Defenders office if her name wasn't on his 
visitors' list at the jail, and that they would assist her. She got a runaround 
for days going into weeks and finally received the word that the lawyers 
weren't going to permit her to see Ted. Of course, this was transpiring as 
the attorneys focused on holding in place their deception concerning 
the insanity plea, at a critical juncture in the proceedings. They 
weren't about to let her possibly blow their control over him via his 
direct access to media. 

Christine was phoning me several nights a week to recount her 
frustration, while at the same time the lawyers were working hard to 
poison Ted's opinion of her. They portrayed her as a scheming, publicity- 
seeking snoop with no legitimate interest in him. 

Late in the month when it had been made clear that no visit was 
going to happen, Ms. Craft decided to do a story anyway and tell, 
among other things, her tale of being denied the chance to speak with 
Ted Kaczynski. I felt, as Ted had initially, that she was a very fair-minded, 
responsible individual and that she was obviously entitled to do a 
piece on what had been going on. But she needed to be able to include 
the part about being invited to see him, how that came about. This 
included me, and meant that her end-of-December Sacramento Weekly 
article brought a deluge of media attention my way. Having really very 
few other connections to Kaczynski, journalists flocked to my house 
and phoned at all hours for a while. I didn't talk to any of them until 
the plea agreement was reached a month later. 

Several months previously I had arranged, through the Cultural Forum 
of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, to give a talk 
on campus in late January 1998. It turned out that the event took place 
just a few days after the front page news of the plea agreement. During 
those few days I'd talked with media folks locally, which brought major free 
publicity to the talk and necessitated two successive changes to larger- 
capacity campus venues. 

More than 500 people showed up for my comments on the nature 
and direction of technology. It's possible that some were disappointed 
by my avoidance of any "What's the Unabomber really like?" -type 


How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


material. However, I ended the speech with the suggestion that there 
might be a parallel between Kaczynski and John Brown. Brown made 
an anti-slavery attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Vir- 
ginia in 1859. Like Kaczynski, Brown was considered deranged, but he 
was tried and hung. Not long afterward he became a kind of American 
saint of the abolitionist movement. I offered the hope, if not the pre- 
diction, that T.K. might at some point also be considered in a more 
positive light for his resistance to industrial civilization. During the 
question-and-answer period, a Native American woman and a teenage 
boy each expressed their respect and admiration for Kaczynski. 

The best thing about this campus presentation was that it prompted 
two young anarchists to visit me some time later. Icky's was no more, 
but a new, militant presence was soon at work. Overall, 1998 would 
see an awakening that continues to grow, and has seemed especially 
pronounced in Eugene and the Whiteaker neighborhood in particular. 

Various repressive responses were soon felt. In fact, they had begun 
in the neighborhood the preceding fall, when the City closed Scobert 
Park, ignoring a rough consensus that the community had arrived at 
through a series of open meetings. The little park was entirely fenced 
off, but opposition swiftly appeared. Along with signs and banners and 
folks doing a sleep-in, the fence disappeared during its first night on 
duty around the park. In the morning it was replaced, and the next 
night it was once again removed. This went on for a few days until the 
City gave up. Victory for the neighborhood! 

Summer of '98 saw local government attempt to cut down about 
thirty old maple trees along three blocks in the heart of the Whiteaker. 
This decimation of the area's loveliest feature would have been a 
demoralizing blow. At the same time, in a series of secret meetings, a move 
was underway to bring the federal "Weed and Seed" program to our 
hotbed of emerging resistance and alternative ways. "Weed and Seed" 
offers federal money to poor locales in return for permission to crack 
down on any and all "law-breakers": weed out the bad elements and get 
seed funds for, say, a community center. Both of these challenges to the 
integrity of the neighborhood were loudly rebuffed, in no uncertain terms 
by the solidarity of the residents who would have been affected. 


Running On Emptiness 

In other words, the resurfacing of opposition to business as usual 
was met early on by various efforts at counter-attack. But a renewed 
social movement was quickly developing, and in its militancy was 
adopting radically new tactics. 

In October '98 an anti-Nike demonstration crossed the line from 
respectful symbolic protest to a real, non-legal act. To draw attention to 
Nike's already notorious use of sweatshop labor, a standard march and 
picket at the local outlet proceeded as usual, but the event soon took on 
a different character. Several people, masked up and wearing black, 
entered the store and trashed it by breaking a few items and throwing 
apparel out the door into a fountain below. A bold departure from the 
old gestures that never seem to show contempt for basics of the 
work/consume/destroy nature treadmill. 

In fact, night-time property damage was fast asserting itself and raising 
the ante of discussion in Eugene. Targets of political vandalism in the 
Whiteaker included a natural foods store whose owner worked overtime to 
close Icky's Teahouse, the van owned by a cop residing in the 
neighborhood, and a yuppie restaurant, which to many represented an 
opening wedge to gentrification (higher rent for poor people). The last 
place closed after a steady pattern of graphic, hostile acts. 

Property destruction, mainly broken windows and spray -painted 
graffiti, was hotly debated at first but has become more widely accepted 
and even espoused as a necessary tactic. The same shift has occurred in 
terms of increasingly militant tactics, seen as a needed escalation against 
an all-destructive global system of capital and technology. Those of us 
who know that the reigning setup must be stopped and dismantled have 
for some time pushed for substantive resistance, and it has certainly 
grown. From Seattle '99 to Prague 2000, Quebec City 2001 and 
beyond, a strong resolve is in evidence, with "black bloc" and like- 
minded militancy. 

The new level or stage of contestation began to be noticed outside 
of Eugene. The winter of '98-99 was marked by continued radical 
efforts, including the birth of the Black-Clad Messenger, an enduring 
publication dedicated to indicting the whole trajectory of domination, 
including its technological and civilization-based logic, and pushing 
for even stronger responses. A June '99 Wall Street Journal article called 
"Disaffected Youth Dust off a Combustible Philosophy" was a lengthy 

So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 


and scurrilous smear-job, full of inaccuracies, that sought to put the 
heat on us. 

But before the month was out, the spirit of anarchy in Eugene 
delivered a counter-blow that significantly exceeded what had already 
gone on. "Reclaim the Streets" on June 18 was a day of worldwide anti- 
capitalist demonstrations, whose high point occurred in London as 
thousands occupied part of the city center and disrupted the stock exchange 
for a few hours. The Eugene edition of RTS began (like the smaller Nike 
affair eight months earlier) as a rather standard-issue protest gathering, 
and took a surprising turn. To sum up, about 200 people conducted a 
roaming riot that went on for almost five hours, with banks and other 
businesses damaged and the cops repeatedly in retreat. It was a glorious 
outburst of energy against the Megamachine, although anarchist Rob 
Thaxton (AKA Rob los Ricos), among eighteen arrested, was later 
sentenced to seven years in prison for hitting a heavily armored cop with a 
rock in defense of himself and a comrade. The anti-World Trade 
Organization "Battle of Seattle" that got the world's attention five 
months later had been prefigured in the streets of little old Eugene, 

Meanwhile, of course, a movement that is more and more anar- 
chist in orientation goes forward all over the world. And the anarchy 
scene has itself changed rather fundamentally in recent years, away 
from the traditional, production/progress-embracing outlook, toward 
the primitivist critique or vision and its Luddite/femimst/decentraliza- 
tion/anti-civilization aspects. 

Certainly no one knows if the side of life, health, and freedom can 
prevail against a system that has already produced an unprecedented 
assault on all living beings. The global war on outer nature is matched 
only by the assault, day after day, upon inner nature; but resistance is 
waxing in strength and I am extremely hopeful. Increasingly, people see 
what is at stake and how basic and far-reaching our alternatives need to 
be. How wonderful it is that after several decades, people are rising to 
the challenge. Nothing is more excellent than to have the opportunity to be 
alive in these days and be a part of a marvelous and necessary effort. 

These remarks, by the way, are in no way comprehensive. They 
only skim the surface, mentioning some highlights and leaving out so 


Running On Emptiness 

much, perhaps especially in terms of the richness, diversity, and the 
conflicts, too, here in the Eugene anarchist community. I will leave it to 
others to fill in the rest, and correct my judgment or emphasis. Our 
very future depends, similarly, upon everyone playing their part and making 
the difference. In closing, I want to express my love to my two daughters. 
The one I gave so little to but who has never cut me off, and the one 
who adopted me, as undeserving as I am. The healed world awaits us all. 




Agriculture ended a vast period of human existence largely character- 
ized by freedom from work, non-exploitation of nature, considerable 
gender autonomy and equality, and the absence of organized violence. It 
takes more from the earth than it puts back and is the foundation of 
private property. Agriculture encloses, controls, exploits, establishes 
hierarchy and resentment. Chellis Glendinning (1994) described agri- 
culture as the "original trauma" that has devastated the human psyche, 
social life, and the biosphere. 

But agriculture/domestication didn't suddenly appear out of nowhere, 
10,000 years ago. Quite possibly, it was the culmination of a very slow 
acceptance of division of labor or specialization that began in earnest in 
Upper Paleolithic times, about 40,000 years ago. This process is behind 
what Horkheimer and Adorno termed "instrumental reason" in their 
Dialectic ofEnlightment. Although still touted as the precondition for 
"objectivity," human reason is no longer neutral. It has somehow 
become deformed, with devastating impact: our reason imprisons our true 
humanity, while destroying the natural world. How else to account for the 
fact that human activity has become so inimical to humans, as well as to all 
other earthly species? Something had already started to take us in a negative 
direction before agriculture, class stratification, the State, and industrialism 
institutionalized its wrongness. 


Running On Emptiness 

This disease of reason, which interprets reality as an amalgamation of 
instruments, resources, and means, adds an unprecedented and uncontrolled 
measure of domination. As with technology, which is reason's incarnation or 
materiality at any given time, reason's "neutrality" was missing from the 
start. Meanwhile, we are taught to accept our condition. It's "human 
nature" to be "creative," goes part of the refrain. 

Division of labor gives effective power to some, while narrowing or 
reducing the scope of all. This can be seen in the production of art as 
well as in technological innovation. The distinctive work of individual 
masters is apparent in the earliest cave art, and craft specialization is an 
essential aspect of the later development of "complex" (AKA stratified) 
societies. Specified roles facilitated a qualitative rupture with long-standing 
human social patterns, in a remarkably short period of time. After two or 
three million years of an egalitarian foraging (AKA hunter-gatherer) mode of 
existence, in only 10,000 years, the rapid descent into a civilized lifeway. 
Since then, an ever- accelerating course of social and ecological 
destructiveness in every sphere of life. 

It's also remarkable how complete the experience of civilization was 
from its very first stages. K. Aslihan Yener's Domestication of Metal (2000) 
discusses complex industry in civilization's opening act, the Early Bronze 
Age. She charts the organization and management of tin mining and 
smelting in Anatolia beginning in 8,000 BC. The archaeological 
evidence shows irrefutably that erosion, pollution, and deforestation were 
very significant consequences, as the earliest civilizations laid waste to 
much of the Middle East. 

With civilization, how it is is how it's always been. Russell Hoban's 
1980 novel, Riddley Walker, provides keen insight into the logic of civi- 
lization. What some call Progress, the narrator identifies as Power: 

"It come to me then I know it Power dint go away. It ben and it wer 
and it wud be. It wer there and drawing. Power want it you to come 
to it with Power. Power wantit what ever cud happen to happen. 
Power wantit every thing moving frontways." 

The nature of the civilization project was clear from the begin- 
ning. As the swiftly arriving product of agriculture, the intensification 

No Way Out? 


of domination has been steady and sure. It's telling that humans' first 
monuments coincide with the first signs of domestication (R. Bradley in 
Mither, 1998). The sad linearity of civilization's destruction of the natural 
world has been interrupted only by symptoms of self-destruction in the 
social sphere, in the form of wars. And when we recall with B.D. Smith 
(1995) that domestication is "the creation of a new form of plant and 
animal," it becomes obvious that genetic engineering and cloning are 
anything but strange aberrations from the norm. 

The contrast with thousands of generations of forager (hunter-gatherer) 
life is staggering. There is no dispute that these ancestors put sharing at the 
center of their existence. Throughout the anthropological literature, 
sharing and equality are synonymous with the forager social 
organization, characterized as bands of 50 or fewer people. In the 
absence of mediation or political authority, people enjoyed strong 
expressive bonds face-to-face with one another and in intimacy with nature. 

Hewlett and Lamb (2000) explored the levels of trust and compas- 
sion in an Aka band of foragers in central Africa. The physical and 
emotional closeness between Aka children and adults, they concluded, is 
closely related to their benign orientation to the world. Conversely, Aka 
people see their environment as generous and supportive, at least in part, 
because of the unrestricted bonds among themselves. Colin Turnbull 
observed a very similar reality among the Mbuti in Africa, who 
addressed greetings to "Mother Forest, Father Forest." 

Agriculture is the founding model for all the systematic authoritar- 
ianism that followed, certainly including capitalism, and initiating the 
subjugation of women. Very early farming settlements contained "as many 
as 400 people" (Mithen et al, 2000). We know that expanding population 
was not a cause of agriculture but its result; this suggests a basic dynamic 
of the population problem. It appears that societies organized on a truly 
human scale fell victim to the exigencies of domestication. It may be that 
we can only solve the planet's overpopulation problem by removing the 
root cause of basic estrangement from one another. With the advent of 
domestication, reproduction was not only rewarded economically; it 
also offered a compensation or consolation for so much that had been 
eradicated by civilization. 

Amid the standardizing, disciplinary effects of today's systems of 


Running On Emptiness 

technology and capital, we are subjected to an unprecedented barrage of 
images and other representations. Symbols have largely crowded out 
everything real and direct, both in the daily round of interpersonal 
interactions and in the accelerating extinction of nature. This state of 
affairs is generally accepted as inevitable, especially since received wisdom 
dictates that symbol-making is the cardinal, defining quality of a 
human being. We learn as children that all behavior, and culture itself, 
depend on symbol manipulation; this characteristic is what separates us 
from mere animals. 

But a close look at Homo over our many, many millennia chal- 
lenges the inexorability or "naturalness" of the dominance of symbols in 
our lives today. New discoveries are making newspaper headlines with 
increasing frequency. Archaeologists are finding that more than a million 
years ago, humans were as intelligent as ourselves — despite the fact that 
the earliest evidence to date of symbolic activity (figurines, cave art, 
ritual artifacts, time recordings, etc.) date to only 40,000 years ago 
or so. People used fire for cooking 1.9 million years ago; and built and 
sailed seagoing vessels at least 800,000 years ago! 

These people must have been very intelligent; yet they left no tan- 
gible trace of symbolic thought until relatively recently. Likewise, although 
our ancestors of a million years ago had the I.Q. to enslave each other 
and destroy the planet, they refrained from doing so, until symbolic culture 
got going. Civilization advocates are making a concerted effort to find 
evidence of symbol use at a much earlier time, paralleling the unsuccessful 
effort in recent decades to locate evidence that would overturn the new 
anthropological paradigm of pre-agriculrural harmony and well being. 
So far, their searches have not borne fruit. 

There is an enormous time gap between clear signs of mental capacity 
and clear signs of any symbolizing at all. This discrepancy casts 
serious doubt on the adequacy of a definition of humans as essentially 
symbol makers. The apparent congruence between the beginnings of 
representation and the beginnings of what is unhealthy about our 
species seems even more important. Basic questions pretty much formulate 

One such question concerns the nature of representation. Foucault 
argued that representation always involves a power relation. There may 

No Way Out? 


be a connection between representation and the power imbalance that 
is created when division of labor takes over human activity. In a similar 
vein, it is difficult to see how large social systems could have come about 
in the absence of symbolic culture. At a minimum, they appear to be 

Jack Goody (1997) referred to "the continuing pressure to repre- 
sent." Along with an easily identified impulse to communicate, is there 
not also something much less positive going on? For all those genera- 
tions before civilization, folks did many things with their minds — including 
communicating — but they didn't get symbolic about it. To re-present reality 
involves a move to a complete, closed system, of which language is the 
most obvious example and perhaps the original instance. Whence this will 
to create systems, to name and to count? Why this dimension that looks 
suspiciously like instrumental reason, with its essentially dominating 

Language is routinely portrayed as a natural and inevitable part of 
our evolution. Like division of labor, ritual, domestication, religion? 
Complete the progression and we see that the end of the biosphere 
and total alienation are likewise "natural" and "inevitable." Whether or 
not there can be a way out of the symbolic order is the pressing ques- 

"In the beginning was the Word" — the convening of the symbolic 
domain. After Eden's freedom was revoked, Adam named the animals 
and the names were the animals. In the same way, Plato held that the 
word creates the thing. There is a moment of linguistic agreement, and 
from then on a categorized frame is imposed on all phenomena. This 
pact attempts to override the "original sin" of language, which is the 
separation of speech and world, words and things. 

Many languages start out rich in verbs, but are gradually undone by 
the more common imperialism of the noun. This parallels the movement to 
a steadily more reified world, focusing on objects and goals at the 
expense of process. In similar fashion, the vivid naturalism of cave art 
gives way to an impoverished, stylized aesthetic. In both cases, the 
symbolic deal is sweetened by the promise of an enticing richness, but in 
each case the long-term results are deadly. Symbolic modes may begin 
with some freshness and vitality, but eventually reveal their actual 
novertv. their inner loeic 


Running On Emptiness 

The innate sensual acuity of human infants steadily atrophies as 
they grow and develop in interaction with a symbolic culture that con- 
tinues to infiltrate and monopolize most aspects of our lives. A few 
remnants of the unmediated, the direct still survive. Lovemaking, close 
relationships, immersion in wild nature, and the experience of birth and 
death awaken our senses and our intelligence, stimulating an unaccustomed 
hunger. We long for something other than the meager, artificial world of re- 
presentation, with its second-hand pallor. 

Communication remains open to those invigorating flashes that 
pass, nonverbally, between people. All the crabbed, crimped, condi- 
tioned channels might be chucked, because we can't live on what's 
available. As levels of pain, loss, and emptiness rise, the reigning appa- 
ratus pumps out ever more unsatisfying, unsustaining lies. 

Referring to telepathy, Sigmund Freud wrote in his New Introduc- 
tory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, "One is led to a suspicion that this is the 
original, archaic method of communication." Enculturated down to 
his toes, Freud didn't celebrate this suspicion, and seemed to fear the 
life force that accompanied such non-cultural dynamics. Laurens van 
der Post (e.g. The Lost World of the Kalahari, 1958) related several first- 
hand observations of telepathic communication, over considerable dis- 
tances, among the people who used to be called "Bushmen." M. 
Pobers and Richard St. Barbe Baker, also writing in the 1950s, wit- 
nessed telepathy by indigenous people before they were colonized by 
civilization. I mention this in passing as one glimpse of the reality of 
the non-symbolic, a direct connection that actually existed not long ago, 
and that could be revived amid the ruins of representation. 

Language and art may have originally appeared and united in 
ritual, a cultural innovation intended to bridge a new separation 
between people and their world. The term "animism" is often used, 
dismissively or even pejoratively, to describe the belief that nonhuman 
beings and even objects are inhabited by "spirits." Just as the term 
"anarchism" is a summary description of anarchy, a pervasive viewpoint or 
state of being that rejects hierarchy, "animism" fails to capture the 
transformative quality of a shared awareness. In the case of anarchy, 
there is an awareness that living in equality with with other humans 
necessitates the rejection of all forms of domination, including leadership 
and political representation. "Animism" refers to 

No Way Out? 


the extension of that awareness to other life forms and even to "inani- 
mate" dwellers on the planet such as rocks, clouds, and rivers. The fact 
that there is no word related to animism, analogous to anarchy, is an 
index of how distanced we are from this awareness, in our present 
state. Green anarchy explicitly states that anarchy must embrace the 
community of living beings, and in this sense takes a step toward re- 
awakening this awareness. 

Did humans lose the awareness of belonging to an earthly commu- 
nity of living beings with the advent of domestication, division of labor, 
and agriculture? The construction of monuments and the beginnings of 
animal and human sacrifice would tend to support this hypothesis. 
Characteristically, the scapegoated victim is held responsible for communal 
misfortune and suffering, while the fundamental reasons for the 
community's loss go unrecognized and unmitigated. Ritual involves 
"enormous amounts of energy" (Knight in Dunbar, Knight and Power, 
1999); it is usually loud, multimediated, emotional, and redundant, tes- 
tifying to the felt depth of the underlying crisis. 

The movement from animism to ritual parallels the transformation 
of small, face-to-face groups into large, complex societies. Culture takes 
over, with specialized professionals in charge of the realm of the sacred. 
The longing for that original feeling of communion with other beings 
and egalitarian intimacy with one's fellow humans can never be appeased by 
ritual activities developed within a hierarchical social system. This 
tendency culminates in the teachings of transcendant religions, that 
since the meaning of our lives has nothing to do with life on earth, we 
should pin our hopes on a heavenly reward. Conversely, as with the 
Aka and Mbuti described above, feelings of oneness with the earth and 
all its inhabitants, and a sense of the joy and meaningfulness of 
existence, seem to flourish when we humans live in egalitarian, face-to- 
face groups. 

Returning to language, an agreed-upon banality is that reality is always 
inherently disclosed through language — that in fact reality is decisively 
mediated by language. Postmodernism ups this ante in two ways. 
Because language is basically a self -referential system, PM avers, language 
cannot really involve meaning. Further, there is only language (as there 
is only civilization); there is no escape from a world defined by language 
games (and domestication). But archaeological and ethno- 


Running On Emptiness 

graphic evidence shows clearly that human life has existed outside rep- 
resentation, and nothing definitively precludes humans from living that 
way again — however devoutly the postmodernists, in their accommodation 
to the system, may pray that this just cannot be. 

The ultimate in representation is the current "society of the specta- 
cle" described so vividly by Guy Debord. We now consume the image 
of living; life has passed into the stage of its representation, as specta- 
cle. At the same time that technology offers virtual reality to the indi- 
vidual, the ensemble of electronic media creates a virtual community, an 
advanced symbolic state of passive consumption and learned help- 

But the balance sheet for the ruling order shows a mixed forecast. 
For one thing, representation in the political sector is met with skepti- 
cism and apathy similar to that evinced by representation in general. 
Has there ever been so much incessant yammer about democracy, and 
less real interest in it? To represent or be represented is a degradation, a 
reduction, both in the sense of symbolic culture and in terms of power. 

Democracy, of course, is a form of rule. Partisans of anarchy 
should know this, though leftists have no problem with governance. 
Anarcho-syndicalists and other classical anarchists fail to question any 
of the more fundamental institutions, such as division of labor, domes- 
tication, domination of nature, Progress, technological society, etc. 

To quote Riddley Walker again, as an antidote: "I cud feal some 
thing growing in me it wer like a grean sea surging in me it wer saying, 
POWER." The heart of anarchy. 

Heidegger, in Discourse on Thinking, counseled that an attitude of 
"openness to the mystery" promises "a new ground and foundation 
upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without 
being imperiled by it." An anti-authoritarian orientation does not 
consist of this passive attitude, of changing only our consciousness. 
Instead, technology and its accomplice, culture, must be met by a res- 
olute autonomy and refusal that looks at the whole span of human presence 
and rejects all dimensions of captivity and destruction. 




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